Find the latest on the ongoing state budget battle here

Editor's note: This story was updated at 8:30 p.m. July 8 after Gov. Tom Wolf signed the state budget bill.

By SUSAN JONES

The roller coaster ride that has been the Pennsylvania budget season this year is continuing its ups and downs, but funding for Pitt and the other three state-related universities seems to have been finalized — at the same amount they’ve received since 2019.

The state House on July 6 approved funding for Pitt, Penn State, Temple and Lincoln universities by a 145-55 vote, more than the two-thirds needed for it to pass. It had already passed the Senate. On July 8, the Senate approved the state-related funding by 43-7 and sent it on to Gov. Tom Wolf. On Friday evening, Wolf signed the overall $45.2 billion budget bill, including the funding for state-related universities.

Republican House lawmakers had tacked an amendment onto the state-related schools funding bill last week by a vote of 108-92 that would have required Pitt to end medical research using human fetal tissue from voluntary abortions if it wanted to receive its state appropriation. Pitt and the other state-related schools have repeatedly said that all the money they receive from the state goes toward reducing tuition for in-state students.

This amendment was one of the major reasons that the state budget was not passed by the required deadline of June 30. With the fetal tissue amendment attached, the state-related appropriation, which this year grouped all four schools together, would not have been able to meet the two-thirds threshold, thereby holding up not just funding to the schools but the entire state budget.

This week, the fetal tissue research amendment was removed from the funding bill and attached to a separate bill focused on expanding broadband access that’s expected to die in the Senate.

Pitt political science professor Chris Bonneau said this move by conservative lawmakers is “easy position-taking. They can continue to be in the good graces of some of their supporters while knowing it will never happen. What’s interesting is you had some lawmakers vote not to fund Pitt unless there was no fetal-tissue research, but then change their votes when it came down to the final vote. As a practical matter, why bother angering supporters when it costs you nothing to support something.”

In February, Gov. Wolf had requested a 5 percent increase for the schools in his budget proposal, but once again lawmakers have approved flat funding. Under the non-preferred appropriations measure, Senate Bill 1284, Pitt will receive $151.5 million, plus $3.35 million for rural education outreach. Penn State will get $242.1 million; Temple, $158.2 million; and Lincoln, $15.2 million.  

“This is disappointing, since the state’s finances are in incredibly good shape,” Bonneau said. “Yet, it’s not surprising because Pennsylvania has long been one of the worst states in terms of funding higher education. This consistent failure to adequately fund higher education in the state is short-sighted and leads to many of its citizens having a high amount of student debt.”

“Rising costs and inflation affect us all and as long as the state appropriation stays the same, the power of those dollars continues to decrease for PA students,” said University Senate President Robin Kear. “I hope that future years will keep up with rising costs.”

Over the past several months, Pitt has had an ongoing campaign to gather support and make sure lawmakers know that all of the money from the state goes toward reducing tuition for Pitt’s 17,000 in-state students. The campaign has involved billboards, social media ads, traditional ads and mailings, as well as encouraging supporters to contact state lawmakers.

Kear said she appreciated the work of Pitt staff in the chancellor’s office and the Office of Governmental Relations “for their hard work maintaining Pitt’s appropriation from the state. I appreciate the thousands of advocates in the Pitt extended community that interacted with state legislators this year. I am relieved that most state legislators ultimately voted for Pitt and the three other state-related schools to keep this important funding. I think that Pitt will continue to cultivate bipartisan support for our PA students, however the current political and cultural climate may continue to intensify this work. The value that Pitt brings to the state and to our PA students will not change.”

In addition to objecting to medical research using human fetal tissue, conservative lawmakers also have targeted other other hot-button right wing issues, such as free speech on campus, classes on diversity and race, and vaccine mandates.

Bonneau said this effort by lawmakers to use state funding to exert more control over Pitt and the other state-relateds is “very concerning in the long-term. This year, revenues were not an issue since the state is flush with cash, and we still barely had enough support for our funding.

“If the legislature is truly concerned with how the money is being used, they could pass a bill saying it could only go toward discounts for in-state students. That should apply to all the state-related institutions. So, it seems to me that there is a solution to the issue if the state legislature wants to take it. As for Pitt, I am not sure what else can be done. Pitt said the money went to in-state discounts; several members of the state legislature either didn’t believe us or didn’t care.”

House Republicans are already working to codify that the money can only be spent on in-state tuition discounts, Rep. Eric Nelson (R-Hempfield) told the Post-Gazette. They also want to create performance-based metrics for universities to receive future appropriations, and add more meetings between state-related university leaders and legislators each year, he said.

Nelson, whose district includes Pitt–Greensburg, also has proposed taking all the money that goes to the state-related schools and using it for a voucher program, where students would receive $4,000 to $8,000 grants annually to use at a school of their choice in Pennsylvania. Currently, Pitt students get a roughly $15,000 tuition reduction through state and University money.

Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at suejones@pitt.edu or 724-244-4042.

 

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