Inquirer: Lawmakers Advance 19 Percent Funding Cut for Penn State; University Seeks Timely Action
June 29, 2011 8:47 AM
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Most state House and Senate Democrats joined Republican counterparts late Tuesday to sign off on 19 percent state-funding cuts for Penn State and three other state-related universities, The Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

Those cuts, along with the rest of the $27.15 billion proposed state budget, are expected to reach Gov. Tom Corbett's desk for final approval by Thursday.

The reported action on university funding follows requests from Penn State, Temple University and the University of Pittsburgh, all of which urged Pennsylvania lawmakers to finalize the schools' state appropriations before the end of the fiscal year on Friday.

In fact, a letter from Penn State lobbyists to lawmakers this week shows that the university is now willing to accept the 19 percent funding cut. The 19 percent reduction was advanced last week in measure from the state House Appropriations Committee.

While calling the cut "unprecedented," lobbyists Rich DiEugenio and Mike DiRaimo also wrote that Penn State needs to know what its state appropriations will be as quickly as possible.

That's because university trustees are scheduled to meet July 15 to set 2011-'12 tuition rates, which hinge heavily on how much state support Penn State will receive, administrators have said.

"We're hoping to have our appropriation in place so we can set tuition with some certainty," university spokeswoman Lisa Powers said Tuesday morning.

If, in theory, the state-related universities' appropriations are not finalized this week, it could be as late as September before the schools know how much state support they'll see for 2011-'12.

The four state-related universities -- Penn State, Pitt, Temple and Lincoln -- all were targeted for a roughly 50 percent state-funding cut in Gov. Tom Corbett's budget proposal, introduced in March. Corbett cited the state's projected $4 billion budget gap and argued that higher education should not be immune to belt-tightening.

University leaders called almost immediately for some moderation in the scope of the proposed cut, however. Penn State President Graham Spanier has said repeatedly that his university is willing to do its "fair share" to help the state through its budget woes, but that a dramatically deep cut -- 52 percent in Penn State's case -- would not be fair.

"We're just grateful for any improvement from the original 52 percent cut that was proposed by the governor," Powers said. "So, yes, this (a 19 percent cut) is progress.

"We understand this is a tight fiscal year for the state and for everyone else around the state," she went on. "We want to do our share, but we also want to have some certainty in setting our tuition. We do not -- as we've said from the beginning -- want to put any undue burden on our students and families."

In their letter to lawmakers, DiEugenio and DiRaimo wrote that Penn State's leadership is "committed to absorbing the reduced appropriation in a fashion that does not do permanent damage to the academic program, nor imposes an undue burden on our students.

"If this (appropriations) bill is passed in a timely fashion, we can assure you that the tuition increases this year will be among the lowest in recent memory," they went on. "This is not an easy task, and there will be ample pain in job losses throughout the university and Cooperative Extension system, but we made a commitment to not punish our students for the economic challenges we face as a commonwealth, and we will hold to that commitment."

DiEugenio and DiRamio ended on an update note, pledging to "work with you so that next year and beyond, we can rebuild the state's support for Penn State ... ."

It's not yet clear exactly what a 19 percent state-funding cut would mean for tuition rates at Penn State. The university has not yet reported the precise scope of the tuition rates that administrators may propose before the Penn State trustees next month.

"Anything can change in the blink of an eye in Harrisburg," Powers said. " ... We're going to wait until the governor puts the pen to paper, and then go from there."

An overview of how local lawmakers had voted Tuesday on the Penn State appropriations measure was not immediately accessible online early Wednesday morning, but will collect those details and post them as soon as possible.

Earlier this spring, state Sen. Jake Corman, a Centre County Republican and the Senate Appropriations Committee chairman, had sought to ease Penn State's funding cut to 15 percent.

State Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Rush Township, had said that he would not support any state budget unless it included level funding for Penn State. But the letter from DiEugenio and DiRaimo "has certainly affected his thinking," Conklin's chief of staff, Tor Michaels, said earlier Tuesday.

Michaels said Conklin would give the correspondence some weight.

State Rep. Kerry Benninghoff, R-Bellefonte, said earlier that he would support funding Penn State at 75 percent of its current level.

The university has already undertaken a variety of cost-control measures in light of the anticipated appropriations cut. Most Penn State employees will see a wage and salary freeze for 2011-'12, for instance. Last week, job cuts were confirmed in Penn State Outreach.

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