By SUSAN JONES
As the end of the fiscal year approaches on June 30, Pitt officials are anxiously awaiting word on what the state budget might have in store for the University for 2022-23.
“Right now, some state lawmakers have indicated their opposition to passing Pitt’s general appropriation this year,” David Brown, Pitt’s new vice chancellor for government relations and advocacy, said in response to emailed questions. “This funding supports a significant tuition discount for Pennsylvanians that saves each Pitt student about $60,000 over the course of their undergraduate career. Unfortunately, this year more than ever, Pennsylvania’s students and families are facing a very real risk of losing their tuition discount.”
A group of Republican lawmakers has been pushing the idea that maybe the state shouldn’t fund Pitt because of fetal tissue research done here and other hot-button right wing issues, such as free speech on campus, classes on diversity and race, and vaccine mandates. One lawmaker, Eric Nelson (R-Hempfield), has gone so far as introducing a bill that would take the $580 million in funding Pitt, Penn State and Temple now get and funnel it into a voucher program Pennsylvania students could use at any school in the state — including private and public universities, technical schools or community colleges.
Brown said one piece of feedback they’ve heard is that lawmakers want to ensure the state’s funding supports students. “Every penny of Pitt’s general support appropriation — funding that state lawmakers have passed for more than half a century — supports a tuition discount for Pennsylvania’s students and families. In this sense, our priorities are aligned.”
He noted that Pitt has received a record number of applications from Pennsylvania students in the past year. Pitt’s Chief Financial Officer Hari Sastry told the House subcommittees in October that the regional campuses, which have the largest difference in tuition between in-state and out-of-state students, would be particularly hard hit if the state cuts funding.
In fiscal year 2020-21, Pitt provided $284 million in tuition discounts for Pennsylvania students. The state’s appropriation accounted for around 60 percent of that discount; Pitt made up the difference.
Brown said lawmakers also know the results of the independent report on Pitt’s fetal tissue research, which found Pitt is compliant with all applicable state and federal laws. “We hope the legislature will return its focus to the issue at hand: keeping a quality Pitt education affordable for Pennsylvania students and families,” he said.
Pitt isn’t just waiting to see what will happen. The University has been active for the past several months in gathering support and making sure lawmakers know that all of the money from the state goes toward reducing tuition for Pitt’s 17,000 in-state students. The University expects to put out another call for action to the Pitt community next week.
The campaign has involved billboards, social media ads, traditional ads and mailings, as well as encouraging supporters to contact state lawmakers. Pitt Advocates, at with.pitt.edu, reported that 15,776 constituent have sent emails to lawmakers and another 4,101 have placed calls to their representatives. More than 20,000 people have signed up to be a Pitt Advocate.
Pitt’s College Republicans and College Democrats issued a joint statement in support of the appropriation. The University also has received support from more than 120 businesses, organizations and groups.
One letter sent to lawmakers from the Pittsburgh Building and Construction Trades Council noted that the tuition discount is “particularly important for working-class students and their families, who may otherwise struggle to access and afford a world-class Pitt education. Failing to pass Pitt’s appropriation would be a devastating blow to current and future students. Equally important: Such a move would undermine Pitt’s vital role as an economic engine, job creator and key partner of the labor movement.”
“Elected officials have told us that they want to hear from their constituents,” Brown said. “This outreach really does make a difference, and members of our Pitt community have done a fantastic job of using their collective voices to express support for the thousands of Pennsylvania students and families who directly benefit from the state appropriation. With the budget vote fast approaching, we can’t let up now."
Anyone interested in voicing their support for Pitt can visit with.pitt.edu and complete a pre-filled form. “Even if you’ve already reached out to your state representative or senator on this issue — your consistent support matters,” Brown said.
In February, Gov. Tom Wolf proposed a five percent increase in state funding for the state-related universities — Pitt, Penn State, Temple and Lincoln. The governor’s plan would raise general funding for Pitt from $151.5 million to $159 million. Pitt last received a funding increase from the state — 2 percent — in 2019.
Brown said Pitt officials have been in regular contact with the other three state-related schools, “since we all have a stake in advocating for Pennsylvania’s students and families.”
He said it is possible the legislature could choose to provide funding to some of the state-related universities but not others, “which would be unprecedented since Pennsylvania began partnering with these universities nearly 60 years ago.”
As far back as October 2021, Gallagher predicted this could be a rough budget year. In March, he sent a message to the Pitt community that said in part: “We enjoy strong bipartisan support in the state Senate, as well as solid backing from the governor and House Democrats. Some House Republicans and a select number of their leadership, however, are using unrelated issues as political bargaining chips to justify a failure to support Pitt students.”
At the March Senate Council meeting, Gallagher reiterated that most, if not all, of the concerns voiced by state lawmakers “really have nothing to do with the purpose of the appropriation. They have to do with concerns about our curriculum, or around masking and vaccines or around other kinds of issues very similar to the kinds of issues you hear happening nationally with other universities. And we're simply not immune from those dynamics here in Pennsylvania.”
Pitt and the other state-related universities are not funded through the main state budget bill, but through separate “non-preferred” bills that are approved after the state’s budget is passed. The state-related appropriation bills need support from two-thirds of the General Assembly to pass.
Pitt generally waits until the state appropriation is passed to set its own budget, salary pool and tuition rates.
Susan Jones is editor of the University Times. Reach her at email@example.com or 724-244-4042.
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