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.

Senate Votes to Keep PSU Fine In-state

With a unanimous vote, the state Senate has advanced legislation that would require Penn State’s $60-million dollar fine to be spent here in Pennsylvania.  Currently, up to 75% could be distributed to fund sexual abuse programs in other states

Senator Jake Corman (R-Centre) addressed the chamber before today’s vote:SB187

The first $12-million dollar installment is sitting in an escrow account, and has not been dispersed pending a lawsuit that Corman has filed. 

Governor Tom Corbett has filed his own lawsuit seeking to overturn all of the NCAA sanctions, but he tells us Penn State should still honor the fine by funding sexual abuse prevention programs & victims services within the commonwealth’s borders. 

Corman’s bill (SB 187) would also apply to future governing association fine levied on PA colleges & universities.  The House must take up Corman’s bill before it can be sent to the governor’s desk. 

Meanwhile, as the Senate was voting today, Judge John Cleland issued an order denying Jerry Sandusky’s post-sentencing motions.  The ex-assistant football coach is currently serving 30 – 60-years in prison for the sexual abuse of ten boys.

Budget Bill Clears Committee, Awaits Senate Vote

The $27.65-billion dollar state spending plan cleared the Appropriations Committee with a unanimous vote late Tuesday morning.  It would spend about a half-billion dollars more next year that what Governor Tom Corbett proposed in February.

Senate Appropriations Chairman Jake Corman (R-Center) cites a recent Independent Fiscal Office report in telling the committee that the budget bill reflects the revenues of today. 

“This has restorations to basic education, particularly in the area of early childhood education, with Pre-K Counts and Head Start restorations,” Corman explained.  “This also sees significant restorations to higher education, back to level funding from last year.” 

He says that the state-owned and state-related universities have agreed to hold tuition hikes at or below the rate of inflation if their funding is restored. 

Senate Democrats want to see even more of the proposed cuts restored, but backed the bill to move the process forward.  “Now that the dollars have come in we have a document in front of us that better represents the dollars that are available,” says minority Appropriations Chair Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia). 

The Corbett administration is encouraged by the recent trend in state revenue reports, but isn’t ready to commit to spending more money until they see exactly how much revenue will be available.  “We think it will be a little better than what our original projections were,” Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley told us by telephone.  “We’re hopeful that will continue to be the case in May and June.” 

The Senate budget bill is likely to be the document from which high-level budget negotiations can begin in earnest.

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.

Transportation Funding Crisis Not a Budget Item

The governor’s Transportation Funding Advisory Commission released its final report in August, and House Democratic Appropriations Chair Joe Markosek (D-Westmoreland/Allegheny) says it’s been ignored for too long.  “I’m just flabbergasted that he’s ignored transportation to the extent that he’s ignored it,” Markosek told us after this week’s budget address.  “It’s just almost unbelievable in my opinion.” 

Pennsylvania faces an annual transportation funding gap that tops $3-billion dollars.  While the new spending plan does not address the matter, Governor Tom Corbett did call it a priority in his budget speech on Tuesday:   

“This is not a budget item.  It is too large for that.  Transportation must be confronted as its own distinct and separate topic.  This problem has grown for the past several decades and it will not be solved overnight.  But, whatever solution we enact must be a lasting one.”

“I have spent significant time considering this issue with my transportation team and developed some workable solutions.  However those solutions will only be possible with your input, assistance and support.” 

Jake Corman

Jake Corman discusses state budget issues with the assembled media.

Senate Republican Appropriations Chair Jake Corman (R-Center) recently put the TFAC recommendations in to bill form in hopes of spurring action on the transportation funding crisis.  But he stresses that this type of funding falls outside of the General Fund and can be addressed at any time – not necessarily during budget season.  “We’ll be waiting for the governor to make his proposal… I look forward to that proposal, and once that comes forward I’m sure we’ll negotiate something that works for everybody,” Corman said during a Q&A with the media following Tuesday’s speech.