Collapse of Pennsylvania budget talks leaves higher ed aid in limbo

Associated Press

HARRISBURG — The collapse of budget negotiations left state aid to five Pennsylvania universities in limbo three months into the fiscal year, and a quiet and empty Pennsylvania Capitol on Thursday ensured that the schools will have to wait longer for the money, if they ever get it.


House Republican Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana, said the state needs the money to pay for the aid before the chamber will send the legislation to Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf.

However, House members have been unwilling to deliver a tax package that Wolf deems large enough to help deal with Pennsylvania’s entrenched post-recession deficit. The House has no plans to return before Oct. 16.

Meanwhile, the budget stalemate has stalled nearly $600 million in aid to Penn State, the University of Pittsburgh, Temple and Lincoln universities and the University of Pennsylvania’s veterinary school, plus authorization for another $52 million for Penn State’s agricultural research and extension programs.

House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, said the five universities have a lot of private-sector qualities, including multibillion-dollar endowments at Penn State and Pitt, and are difficult for students to get into.

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“At a minimum, they should be promising that they will not increase tuition for in-state students,” Turzai said. “They need to make a commitment for ‘18-’19 that they are not increasing tuition for in-state students.”

Asked about the fate of the state aid, Turzai said he needed to first see the details of Wolf’s surprise move, announced Wednesday, to borrow $1.25 billion against profits from the state-controlled wine and liquor store system.

That amount is not nearly enough to cover the state’s projected deficit, never mind the university subsidies. If Pennsylvania does not make good on the aid, it would represent a new cut to state higher education aid, which was about $400 million, or 20 percent, higher a decade ago.

The schools provide public services or tuition discounts for in-state students, or both.

In a statement, Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher warned that going without the $147 million — about 7 percent of its budget — would hurt thousands of students, faculty and staff and undermine the school’s role in driving education, innovation and the economy.

“The much talked about rebirth of Pittsburgh depends on investing in a highly educated, talented workforce that draws the attention of new industry,” Gallagher said.

Penn State’s president, Eric Barron, said losing the money would leave the school unable to run agricultural extension programs and potentially force it to increase tuition for in-state students.

Penn’s veterinary school, the state’s only such school, said it has trained better than two-thirds of Pennsylvania’s veterinarians. The work of its faculty and students, it said, has daily implications for all Pennsylvanians.

“From drastically reducing the incidence of swine disease, increasing the health and productivity of dairy farms, virtually wiping out salmonella in eggs and being on the front lines of preventing Avian Influenza, Penn Vet has always answered the call to serve the Commonwealth and protect her food supply,” the school said Thursday.

Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, said ending state aid will force the universities to make difficult budget decisions and carry farther-reaching implications for the public.

Penn State has received state aid since 1855. Without it, Penn State could simply fill its campus with more students who are from wealthier families, other states or other countries, Corman said.

“I think the public needs to be thinking about and be concerned about what it means to not fund these universities,” Corman said.