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Local Lawmakers Vote for Penn State Funding Cut; Compromise Cited

on June 30, 2011 8:31 AM

Three key state lawmakers representing the State College area all voted Tuesday to cut the Penn State appropriation by 19 percent, calling the move a compromise under dire economic circumstances.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett is expected to sign and formalize the measure this week -- along with the rest of the $27 billion state budget for 2011-'12, including similar cuts for the other state-related universities.

"I don't that I would say 'satisfied,'" state Sen. Jake Corman, R-Benner Township, said, considering his thoughts on the 19 percent cut. "It's a compromise, and a compromise means that everyone walks a little dissatisfied.

"But clearly it's a lot better than the (52 percent) cut that was first proposed," he went on. "Hopefully, we'll do a little better next year."

In March, Corbett proposed cutting Penn State's state appropriation by just more than half, citing Pennsylvania's structural budget deficit.

Penn State leaders and the area's state lawmakers quickly argued against a reduction that severe. Corman, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, suggested a 15 percent cut instead. State Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte, said he would support a 25 percent cut.

And state Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Rush Township, indicated that he would not support any budget unless it maintained Penn State's full complement of funding.

But after university lobbyists this week urged lawmakers to vote in a timely way for the 19 percent funding cut -- reached after weeks of Capitol negotiations -- Conklin changed his thinking, his chief of staff said.

"After the statement released by Penn State indicating they were in reluctant support of this plan -- that changed his mind," said Tor Michaels, the Conklin chief of staff.

The state spending bills bound for Corbett this week will shift the line items for Penn State agricultural research and Cooperative Extension to the state agriculture-department budget -- and out of the university's general appropriation.

Corman said those two line items will see the same 19 percent cut endured by the rest of Penn State in 2011-'12. But in the future, he said, he hopes they will no longer be "caught up in higher-education politics, so to speak."

"They were caught up in it," Corman said. In coming years, he said, he suspects agricultural interests will "do a better job lobbying for those as they're broken out on their own -- as opposed to being tied up in the university budget."

It remains unclear exactly what the 19 percent funding cut will mean for Penn State's tuition rates. University leaders have said they're committed to keeping any increases to a very modest level this year. But the administration has not identified the precise rates it will propose to the university trustees when they meet next month.

Benninghoff said he's glad that the university has made a commitment to keep tuition increases to a minimum. And he thinks Penn State is "heading in the right direction for their belt-tightening," he said.

The university expects to see a variety of programming cutbacks, job losses and other expense cuts as a result of the state-funding reduction. Some layoffs have already been announced.

"I think the key thing to remember is that the same people -- the same constituents -- get hit by raising tuition (and) when we raise taxes to provide institutions more money," Benninghoff said. " ... It's all coming out of taxpayers' pockets."

As for state-funding prospects next year, Benninghoff said he expects the state to see continued challenges -- including an estimated $50 billion in debt. He does not expect state revenue to keep pace with demands on the state budget, he said.

"Anyone getting money from the commonwealth should not anticipate any dramatic increase next year," Benninghoff said. "This is going to take years to get out of this recession."

Corman, for his part, said he hopes the state will be able to make a "new commitment to higher education" soon.

"Having said that, higher education has not fared well in Harrisburg in the last decade," he said. " ... I think we need to have a serious conversation with the (gubernatorial) administration, the House and the Senate about what our commitment is to higher education and how to make it a priority.

"It seems like it's the last thing we talk about when we do have money -- and the first thing we cut when we don't have money," Corman said.

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