Gov. to Seek Level Funding for Higher Education

With Governor Tom Corbett’s commitment to level-fund higher education in the new fiscal year, state-owned and state-related university officials are pledging to keep any tuition hikes as low as possible.  “This agreement, this working together, will allow our schools to better plan their budgets for the coming year and make the best use of their resources,” Corbett said at a capitol news conference.  “Their commitment should allow students, and particularly their families, to plan their own budgets accordingly.”  Corbett was flanked by the state’s higher education leaders as he made Friday’s announcement. 

This agreement – level-funding in exchange for minimal tuition hikes – is similar to a deal that was ultimately struck last year.  Corbett says it resulted in the lowest tuition increases in more than a decade.  “For example, Temple University did not raise tuition last year; Penn State had their lowest tuition increase in nearly 40-years.” 

The state appropriated nearly $1.6-billion to higher education in the current fiscal year, and Corbett is proposing the same amount for FY2013-14. 

State Senator Jake Corman (R-Centre) says level-funding is significant in what continue to be difficult budget times.  “As Appropriations Chairman I can tell you that this coming fiscal year… our cost-carry-forward items – such as Medicaid, debt service, corrections, things of that nature – will grow at a higher rate than what our revenues will grow next year,” he explains. 

This sort of early collaboration between Governor Corbett and the higher education community is a change of pace from previous budget cycles.  Two years ago, higher education received a near 20% cut, after even steeper cuts were initially proposed.  Last year, a level-funding deal wasn’t struck until long after Corbett proposed another round of stiff cuts

With that track record in mind, Democrats don’t seem too impressed with Friday’s announcement.  “By flat funding higher education, Tom Corbett is keeping in place harsh cuts from past budgets and ignoring cost of living increases,” says Pennsylvania Democratic Party Chairman Jim Burn, “Tom Corbett has the wrong priorities.” 

Corbett will discuss all of his priorities on Tuesday when he delivers his annual budget address to a joint session of the General Assembly.

Negotiators Agree to Budget Framework, Tax Credit

Governor Tom Corbett has repeatedly said that June 30th means something to him.  With Wednesday night’s announcement that he and top Republican lawmakers have agreed to a $27.656-billion dollar budget framework, it appears that Pennsylvania is on pace to meet a second consecutive budget deadline.

Neither Corbett nor the legislative leaders were willing to discuss the details, as rank-and-file lawmakers are still being briefed on the specifics and a few details are still being finalized.  However, $27.656-billion is the same spend number the state Senate used when it passed a budget bill in May.

One of the Senate’s top priorities at the time was the restoration of proposed 20% cuts to the State System of Higher Education and proposed 30% cuts to the three big state-related universities (Penn State, Pitt and Temple).  The planned restorations came with a promise from those universities to keep next year’s tuition increases below the Consumer Price Index.  Whether these restorations made it into the final deal has yet to be confirmed.

We do know that 40.3% of the budget is comprised of education spending and 38.9% is spent on social services.  So, any movement in the spending plan – either up or down – will likely come from those two categories.

In addition to the budget framework, negotiators have confirmed agreement on an ethane tax credit that’s designed to lure a massive new petrochemical plant to western Pennsylvania.  “We are investing I believe… in a new industrial revolution in Pennsylvania,” Governor Corbett said earlier on Wednesday.  “We are investing in the opportunity for thousands of Pennsylvanians to have a good job.”

The American Chemistry Council estimates 10,000 construction jobs, 400 direct plant jobs in 17,000 spinoff jobs in chemical and manufacturing industries if the proposed Shell Oil petrochemical plant comes to fruition in Pennsylvania.

While Corbett was joined at the capitol by a large & diverse group of tax credit supporters, critics are wary of giving taxpayer money away to big industry.  One of those critics is state Rep. Jesse White (D-Washington).  He’s already proposed an alternative that would fund the incentives through a surcharge on Pennsylvania’s natural gas wells.  “We should not be socializing costs while privatizing profits,” White said in a statement this week.

Pennsylvania Finance Building

Bills Could Benefit PA’s College Savings Plans

After receiving unanimous votes in the House Appropriations Committee the pair of bills awaits action on the Senate floor.  One would ensure that state tax benefits are only applied to state-sponsored college savings plans.  “Pennsylvania is one of just a few states that allows for tax credits for investments out of state,” says Senator Jake Corman (R-Centre), the prime sponsor. 

State Treasurer Rob McCord (D-PA) applauds the bipartisan effort.  “It will help current account holders by lowering fees.  It will help future account holders by making it crystal clear that they’ve got a best of breed program, top-ranked, Vanguard-provided, right here in Pennsylvania,” McCord explained in a telephone interview.    

Corman’s second bill would put the full faith and credit of the Commonwealth behind the state’s Guaranteed Savings Plan.  “I don’t think anyone here believes that if this program came under financial distress that we wouldn’t step in,” he said at this week’s Appropriations Committee meeting. 

Treasurer McCord supports this bill too, telling us the explicit guarantee would assure even the most cautious consumers and advisors.  But he adds that the GSP is extremely healthy.  “We’ve had record-breaking investment return rates under the McCord Treasury, I’m singularly proud of that.” 

Both bills (SB 1135 & SB 1090) could soon be called up for final Senate votes.  The timing seems right, as May 29th is “529 College Savings Day.”

Higher Education Rally, Capitol Steps

Students Rally to Stop Higher Ed Funding Cuts

Higher Education Rally

East Stroudsburg University student Emily Sasz

Fed up with the prospect of another round of deep budget cuts, several hundred students marched down State Street and up the state capitol steps on Wednesday.  They carried signs that read “Some Cuts Never Heal” and Save Our Ship;” the latter of course referring to Shippensburg University, which is one of the 14-schools that compose the State System of Higher Education.     

West Chester University senior Rachel Wittman has already seen the effects last year’s 18% funding cuts have had on campus.  “Some classes just got completely cut,” Wittman explains.  “Those are things that these people are passionate about, that they want to do, they want to learn, but they can’t.”  Tuition was also hiked by more than $400-dollars across the system for the current school year. 

Higher Education Rally

Edinboro University student Kristina Kaiser

This year Governor Tom Corbett has proposed 20% cuts for the State System, and California University of Pennsylvania grad student Shane Assadzandi is fed up.  “This year when the pattern continued, myself and several students at our school, we knew it was time to stand up and take a stand against this.” 

Radio PA also caught up with APSCUF President Steve Hicks at the capitol rally.  “You’re going to hurt working class families, middle class families in the Commonwealth, and you’re going to shrink the number of degrees at a time when we need to increase it,” he says.   Hicks ultimately hopes for level funding in the new state budget.  APSCUF represents faculty and coaches at the 14-State System Schools.

Capitol, State Capitol, Dome

Key Higher Ed. Budget Hearings set for Tuesday, Wednesday

For the second straight year, proposed budget cuts in higher education are creating a stir under the capitol dome.  Senate Appropriations Chairman Jake Corman (R-Centre) referred to the state-related universities as the “state barely related universities,” as he lamented planned 30% cuts to Penn State, Pitt and Temple’s state support.  Corman’s Centre County district includes the Penn State University Park campus. 

Using Penn State as an example, the governor’s office will tell you that the planned spending reductions only amount to 1.5% of its overall budget.  Corman, however, turns those numbers around and points out that the state’s share of PSU’s overall budget would only be 3.8% next year. 

In a direct line of questioning with Education Secretary Ron Tomalis, Monday, Appropriations Committee member John Rafferty (R-Montgomery) asked if there’s an effort to privatize the state-related universities.  “No sir, there is not,” Tomalis replied.  “A lot of these decisions, as you know, are budget-driven decisions.” 

The three major state-related universities would see 30% cuts in state support under the governor’s budget plan.  The State System of Higher Education would receive 20% cuts, and community colleges’ state funding would be reduced by roughly 4%.  Governor Tom Corbett recently addressed the issue on Radio PA’s Ask the Governor program.     

Jake Corman

State Sen. Jake Corman

“If we truly want these to continue to be public universities, then I look forward – at the state-related level, at the state system level and at the community college level – to restoring all of these cuts,” Corman said at Monday’s hearing, which focused on the State Department of Education. 

On Tuesday afternoon, the State System of Higher Education will sit down with the Senate Appropriations Committee.  Then, the committee has carved out all day Wednesday to meet individually with the four state-related universities.

Summer Camps Focus on Science

Hundreds of Pennsylvania middle schoolers are wrapping up a “Summer of Innovation.”  Project director Dr. David Morgan, with the Chester County Intermediate Unit (CCIU), says they were one of only nine organizations, nationwide, selected to receive NASA grant funding for the Summer of Innovation (SOI) camps:  “To encourage students to get engaged in STEM careers: science, technology, engineering and math; because our country, to continue its competitive edge, needs to have its students involved in those kinds of careers.”

CCIU is partnering with Immaculata University, Bucknell University, Lycoming College and the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg to bring ‘out-of-this-world’ science to 2,000 students in 20-school districts, and two cyber charter schools, throughout the state.  “Everything’s hands on, and they are activities selected from NASA, which are considered to be best practice,” says Morgan.  This is the first year of the four year program, and Morgan says the 20-participating school districts will be with them for the duration.    

Women Empowered By Science

Students and instructors enjoy a WEBS science lab at Wilkes University.

SOI isn’t the only summer camp getting students excited about science this summer.  At Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, the Women Empowered By Science (WEBS) program is focused on girls entering the seventh and eighth grades.  “We’re choosing this age because they still are excited, they still want to investigate and they still have the joy of learning.  We can play off of that, put them in our labs and – in a very fun way – continue the learning process,” says WEBS coordinator Debbie Chapman.  The two-week WEBS summer camp at Wilkes University is funded by a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.  

The girls have been doing everything from dissecting frogs, to programming robots to dance.  Soon-to-be seventh grader Meghan Cook enjoyed the pharmacy lab the best.  “I think I want to be a pharmacist because they’re the ones making the new medicines.  I want to make a new allergy medicine for my mom, because she has lots of allergies,” Meghan says.  “I loved what we did the past two weeks,” adds fellow WEBS camper Gabriella McElhattan. 

The WEBS camp started out with 15-students, before doubling to 30 last year and 60 this year.  “We’re happy to have 120 [next year],” Chapman says.  “Just working on word of mouth I think we’re going to be able to achieve that goal.”

Capitol Rotunda - Facing House Chamber

State Budget’s Education Cuts Scrutinized

It’s a budget that represents shared sacrifices, and president of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children Joan Benso says kids are sharing a big chunk of the sacrifice.  Benso’s budget reaction is somewhat mixed.  For instance she says the $100-million dollar restoration for Accountability Block Grants will be helpful.  “But for example… in Harrisburg, their school board voted to go back to part-day K, the restoration simply isn’t enough,” Benso says.  The Accountability Block Grants are used in large part to fund full-day kindergarten programs across the state.  Governor Tom Corbett’s original budget proposal would have eliminated them.  Lawmakers worked to restore $100-million of last year’s $259-million dollar line item. 

The Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) – the state’s largest teachers union – is lamenting what they calculate to be $860-million dollars in cuts to public education.  “We’re very concerned about the consequences this is going to have on student performance,” says PSEA spokesman David Broderic.  “Pennsylvania students in public schools have made dramatic gains in student performance in the past six years, and part of that has to do with resources being directed at programs that work.” 

State Education Secretary Ron Tomalis

State Education Secretary Ron Tomalis

The “Basic Education Funding” line item will receive $5.35– billion dollars this year.  Last year’s appropriation included $4.73-billion state dollars, in addition to roughly a billion federal stimulus dollars, which are no longer available.  “States were warned not to use that money in a way that would create long-term obligations, and unfortunately that’s exactly what Pennsylvania did,” says state Education Secretary Ron Tomalis.  As the new budget forces the state to live within its means, Tomalis says the education system will have to do the same.  Overall, public education and K – 12 educational programs will receive $10.1-billion dollars in FY2012. 

State Senator Jake Corman

State Senator Jake Corman (R-Centre)

Higher education was projected to receive a 50% state funding cut, according to Governor Tom Corbett’s March 8th budget proposal.  Those figures have since been mitigated to 18% cuts to the 14-universities in the State System of Higher Education, 19% cuts to the state related universities (PSU, Pitt, Temple and Lincoln).  The State System’s board has already approved a 7.5% tuition hike for the new school year.  Even more recently, Temple became the first state related university to approve a new budget.  It calls for a 10% tuition increase.  Penn State’s trustees will set new tuition rates next Friday (July 15th).  The higher education funding issue isn’t likely to go away anytime soon.  “I think that we should take the summer and the fall to get a better understanding of some of these issues, and then be prepared for next year when the budget comes around again,” says State Senator Jake Corman, who chairs the Appropriations Committee.  The Centre County Republican also represents State College, which is – of course – home to Penn State University.

Corbett Signs Budget Ahead of Deadline

PA Budget Signing Beats Midnight Deadline

The $27.15-billion dollar, no-tax increase budget trims state spending by more than a billion dollars.  It passed the legislature with zero Democratic support Wednesday night, but Governor Tom Corbett waited until all of the supporting bills were in place before finally putting pen to paper late Thursday night. 

The administration reports that 66-line items were eliminated, 226-line items were reduced, and 52-line items were consolidated.  Basic education funding will receive $5.35-billion dollars in the new fiscal year.  That’s down from a total of $5.77-billion dollars last year (a number which included federal stimulus dollars).  The State System of Higher Education is already responding to 18% funding cuts.  Its board of governors approved a 7.5% tuition hike on Thursday.  Similarly, the state related universities (PSU, Pitt, Temple and Lincoln) face 19% reductions in state support.    

Governor Corbett calls the lean spending plan an important first step in putting PA’s fiscal house back in order.  “It spends no more than we have and it doesn’t pretend that we have more that we haven’t budgeted,” Corbett said referring to Democrats’ calls to use last year’s unexpected revenues to mitigate cuts to education and welfare programs. 

At Thursday night’s bill signing, Governor Corbett said the budget was crafted to grow PA’s economy: “Make no mistake here. This is a budget for Pennsylvania families, for Pennsylvania working families.  It is a budget that imposes no new taxes on them.”

Governor Corbett also hailed legislative passage of a new bill to limit Act 1 exceptions – thus requiring a voter referendum if a PA school district seeks to raise property taxes above the rate of inflation.  While it was technically an unrelated bill, it represents a Corbett priority and the final piece of the budget package.  “I believe we need to give the citizens of Pennsylvania, in the school districts, the ability to voice their opinion in more than just the election of school board directors,” Corbett tells reporters.     

However, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association is concerned that this will result in additional reductions in educational programming.  They know that voter referenda on property taxes are extremely difficult to approve.  “The problem is, less than 25% of the population has children in schools, so there’s 75% of the population that the districts need to reach that they don’t necessarily reach on a routine basis,” says PSBA director of research Dave Davare.  “Districts are not willy-nilly raising taxes,” Davare tells us. 

With this year’s budget work behind them, the State House and Senate have each recessed until September.  This marked the first time in nine years that PA’s state budget was signed by the constitutional deadline.

Operating Budget Awaits Governor Tom Corbett’s Signature

A $27.15- billion dollar state spending plan has now passed both chambers of the legislature, with zero Democratic support.  Wednesday night’s House vote was 109 – 92.  Two Republicans joined all House Democrats in opposition to the bill

House Republican Appropriations chair Bill Adolph (R-Delaware) says it represents about a 4% reduction in general spending.  “This is only the third time in nearly 40-years that Pennsylvania will be spending less than the prior year budget,” Adolph said during House floor debates.  He contends the budget is built upon realistic and sustainable revenues.  “This budget will not create a deficit by spending beyond our means.” 

The Republican-backed spending plan would tap into some of the higher-than-anticipated state revenues, which have accumulated this year, but Adolph says they do not rely on that money to sustain the budget.  Most state officials expect the final surplus number to be in the range of $700-million dollars.  While many Democrats say more of that money should be spent to mitigate painful spending cuts, Republicans are quick to point to a long list of liabilities, including: growing pension obligations, state debt payments, a potential Mcare settlement, an unresolved transportation funding gap and more.

As Republicans tout the fiscal responsibility of the spending plan, Democrats – like Appropriations chair Joe Markosek (D-Allegheny) – say they relied on gimmicks to keep the spend number artificially low.  “This is a budget that is full of hide and seek and sleight of hand,” Markosek said.  “This is not open government.”   

Democrats complained even more loudly about more than a billion dollars in cuts to basic and higher education.  The 14-universities in the State System of Higher Education will see an 18% funding cut, and we may soon learn whether it will significantly affect tuition rates.  The ‘basic education funding’ line item, in the budget, stands at $5.35-billion dollars.  That’s down from $5.77-billion dollars last year.  But that number included federal stimulus money, and Republicans say this year’s state investment in basic education is the largest ever.

In all, Pennsylvania is losing about $2.7-billion dollars in stimulus money, which was used to balance last year’s budget.  Senate Republican leaders say the loss of federal stimulus dollars means that difficult but necessary budget cuts needed to be made.   

The legislative work isn’t over yet, as there are still auxiliary budget bills that need to be enacted.  But, if Governor Tom Corbett signs the budget today, it will break a streak of eight consecutive late budgets in Pennsylvania.