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State Lawmakers React to Penn State President Erickson's Budget Request

by on February 28, 2014 6:15 AM

State lawmakers are in a tough spot when it comes to Penn State President Erickson's request for additional state funding for the next budget year.

As part of the 2014-2015 budget process, Erickson testified before the state House Appropriations Committee Tuesday during which he asked lawmakers to increase funding for higher education.

"I understand that you will be allocating funds this year for many cost drivers – often out of your control – that will eat up most of your spending authority," Erickson said. "Yet, you also will be making investments in the future. Let this be the first year that renews the trend of investing in higher education, so that, 20 years from now, we will be able to step back and see the positive impacts of that commitment to the future of the Commonwealth."

State Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre County, says Erickson did well in making the case that Penn State would put additional funding to good use by highlighting Penn State's growth in enrollment and research, and saying an increase in state funding would be used to minimize tuition increases. That case could be what secures additional dollars for Penn State should there be any money to dole out during the budget process.

"It's a matter of people like Mr. Erickson making their case," he says.

At the same time, Penn State is not the only higher education institution seeking an increase in funding. Benninghoff notes that several state-owned universities are facing severe financial woes that could force closure – including universities that compete with Penn State's campuses. Lawmakers with such universities in their districts do not want to see that happen, he says.

"We're constantly having to slice the pie into thinner slices," Benninghoff says.

State Sen. Jake Corman, R-Centre County, acknowledges that with state funding at the same level as the 1990s, Penn State will likely have to increase tuition, unless lawmakers can find additional dollars for the university.

However, Corman says it's too early to tell if lawmakers will be in a position to give additional funds to Penn State.

"It remains to be seen. Have to wait until June to get a clear picture of what the budget is going to look like," Corman says. "Hopefully there'll be an ability to raise their level of funding but it s too early to tell at this point."

The 14 universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education have seen a decline in state funding and enrollment. In recent months, universities in the system have cut a slew of faculty members to deal with the budget crisis.

Over the past several weeks, the appropriations committee heard testimony from state agencies and universities across the state, all asking for additional funding. Benninghoff says the challenge is twofold.

First, the only way to increase state revenue is to increase state taxes. Second, 92 percent of the state budget goes to three line items – public assistance, human services and education. Less than 8 percent is doled out for all other agencies and services.

"In reality, we generally have to take it from somewhere else ... in order to give someone else a boost," Benninghoff says.

Benninghoff says if actual state revenues end up higher than projected, it's possible some of those additional dollars could go to Penn State.

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Jennifer Miller is a reporter for StateCollege.com. She has worked in journalism since 2005. She's covered news at the local, state and national level with an emphasis on crime and local government. jenn.miller@statecollege.com
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