Harrisburg impasse puts Pitt, Penn State, Temple, Lincoln funding at ‘real risk’

If you’re ‘With Pitt,’ you can send a message to your lawmakers in Harrisburg.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline
Sarah Anne Hughes

Update 5:08 p.m.

For the first time since July, the state House is back in session today with a full plate.

Both chambers of Pennsylvania’s legislature agreed on a $32 billion spending package earlier this summer, but the House has yet to pass a revenue bill to fund it. Now there are competing proposals on the table: one, a bipartisan bill passed by the Senate that creates a natural gas severance tax and raises taxes on utilities; the other, a brand-new proposal from conservative House Republicans that raids special funds like ones devoted to farmland preservation and public transit.

To complicate matters, the four state-related universities — Pitt, Penn State, Temple and Lincoln — are waiting for the House to give final approval to more than $600 million in aid for this fiscal year. About $150 million of that money would go to Pitt.

Pitt Chancellor Pat Gallagher on Friday released his latest appeal to state lawmakers, writing, “Due to an ongoing disagreement over a revenue package to support the state’s approved spending plan, the appropriation bills funding Pitt, Penn State, Temple and Lincoln are at real risk of not being passed.” Through a university spokesman, Gallagher declined to comment beyond his latest statement.

The university also launched a With Pitt portal that allows supporters to contact lawmakers in Harrisburg by email, tweet or Facebook post. The site also touts Pitt’s contributions to the state, claiming “the Commonwealth sees a $26 return on every $1 it invests in the University and our students and employees.”

State-related schools receive money from Pennsylvania through non-preferred appropriations (meaning the bills require a two-thirds majority to pass). They are separate from state’s 14 (struggling) public universities, including Indiana University and Slippery Rock.

Because of their designation, state-related universities cannot be funded before government services, NewsWorks previously reported.

With Penn State President Eric J. Barron, Gallagher wrote in a football-themed op-ed that “elected officials can take immediate action to pass the pending appropriation bills that will fund Pennsylvania’s state-related universities” when they returned today.

The universities’ appropriations bills are on the House’s agenda for consideration today, but they are not expected to come up for a vote. Today’s session begins at 1 p.m.

According to a spokesman for House Minority Leader Rep. Frank Dermody, “House Republican leaders have not indicated any definite plan for votes on revenue legislation although it continues to be the main topic of discussion.” A spokesman for House Speaker Mike Turzai could not be immediately reached.

In July, Dermody and Sen. Jay Costa accused Republicans of using the state-related schools as “budget pawns.”

“Rep. Dermody has told colleagues that as long as [the budget] isn’t resolved, then all the state funding that Pitt and the other state-related universities are counting on is in extreme jeopardy of disappearing,” Dermody’s spokesman Bill Patton said today. “Chancellor Gallagher’s message to the Pitt community is an important wakeup call for many people who assumed that this year’s funding had already been settled.”

Déjà vu

If this sounds familiar, it’s because we’ve been through this before. Recall, if you will, the Great 2015-16 Budget Debacle.

In January 2016, it was House Democrats who blocked the passage of the FY 15-16 appropriations bills during an extended impasse, citing an unfinished budget. Leaders from Pitt, PSU, Temple and Lincoln responded with an op-ed that decried the use of the bills as “the latest bargaining chip in a protracted political fight.

In February of that year, leaders at state-related universities told Billy Penn they were considering tuition hikes and cuts to deal with the budget impasse, which ended the following month.

The fiscal year 16-17 budget passed without much issue, and Gov. Tom Wolf signed the universities’ appropriations bills in July.

But there’s no such harmony in Harrisburg this time around, with a finished budget now months overdue. State Democrats including Costa have warned that if the budget impasse isn’t solved by Sept. 15, there will be real consequences.

This article has been updated.