Governance Discussion to Include All State-Relateds

Former Auditor General Jack Wagner’s special report on Penn State’s governance will be the subject of a state Senate committee hearing later this month.  “It will be a look at whether there should be changes, and then whether the legislature should have a role in that,” says State Government Committee Chairman Lloyd Smucker (R-Lancaster), who adds that the talks will eventually be broadened to include the other three state related universities as well. 

Smucker, who is also a member of the Appropriations Committee, got the ball rolling with a few questions for the universities’ leaders this week. 

Penn State President Rodney Erickson says their committee on governance & long-range planning will offer some suggested changes to the Board of Trustees later this month.  “Much has already changed with the structure and operations of the board, and there’s surely more to come.” 

None of the leaders of PSU, Lincoln and the University of Pittsburgh expressed concern over one possible reform, which would remove the president’s voting powers on their respective boards.  Temple’s president did not offer an opinion because he’s only been on the job two months, and hasn’t even attended his first trustees’ meeting. 

University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark Nordenberg did weigh in on another big recommendation in Jack Wagner’s Penn State report – reducing the size of the board.  “I don’t know how a small board could exercise proper oversight over an institution the size of Penn State or Pitt or Temple, unless they were going to be full-time board members,” says Nordenberg, noting that smaller is not always better. 

Penn State’s Board of Trustees has 32-members.  Pitt’s board has 36-voting members; Temple’s has 36-voting members; and Lincoln’s has 39.  For reference, Ohio State’s board has 19-members (2-non-voting).  The University of Michigan has 9-board members (1-non-voting).


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.

Ranking State Lawmakers’ Greatest Achievements

Puzzled by the disconnect between the seemingly hard work that goes on at the state capitol and lawmakers’ perpetually poor approval ratings, two Temple University interns set out to study Pennsylvania’s most important laws of the past 40-years.

The results could be considered the General Assembly’s “greatest hits” album, and they’ve been published in the Temple Papers on the General Assembly

A diverse group of 148 lawmakers, former lawmakers, aides, journalists and professors responded to the survey – ultimately ranking statutes on both impact and achievement. 

There were no major statistical differences in how Democrats and Republicans responded, according to Joseph McLaughlin, director of Temple’s Institute for Public Affairs.  “I think given the political environment that we’re in, that was somewhat surprising,” he says. 

Pennsylvania’s 1971 personal income tax law received the top rank for impact, but it fell to 5th when judgments were factored into the equation.  “There were respondents who disagreed with that tax,” McLaughlin explains. 

The 1992 Children’s Health Insurance Plan ultimately topped the list of the General Assembly’s greatest achievements, because most respondents believed that its effects were positive.

The researchers also examined whether divided government has been an obstacle to passing important laws.  The answer was “no.” 

After removing two laws that involved legislative action under both divided and unified government, they found that 14 of the top 25 statutes were enacted during a time when there were different parties controlling the legislative chambers or governor’s office.  “That’s kind of a reminder that even though we get discouraged by gridlock and so forth, in the past we’ve been able to overcome that at the state level,” McLaughlin concludes.    

The Temple Papers on the General Assembly are intended to broaden our understanding of the legislature.  Two volumes have already been published; four more are on the way.

State-Related Universities Plead Their Budget Cases

State-related universities saw near 20% cuts in state support last year.  The governor imposed a 5% budget “freeze” mid-year, and Penn State, Pitt and Temple face proposed 30% cuts next fiscal year.  “In certain respects, what we’re seeing is the dismantling of a long, long commitment by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to public higher education,” University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark Nordenberg told the House Appropriations Committee on Wednesday.  Nordenberg went on to say the cumulative cuts appear to be pushing the state-related into private institutions.

When asked what the proposed cuts would mean, if they were entirely addressed through tuition hikes, Penn State President Rodney Erickson told the panel that it would be a 9.37% tuition increase.  “But I can assure you that we will not do that,” he added. 

At Temple, President Ann Weaver Hart says the hypothetical tuition hike would be in the $4,000 dollar range.  At Pitt, Chancellor Nordenberg said in-state students would be paying $3,000 dollars more if the cuts were absorbed entirely through tuition increases.  But the leaders of all three universities stressed that they continue to look to cut costs, and they would keep tuition hikes as low as possible. 

“The unemployment rate among college graduates is less than half the unemployment rate among high school graduates,” Temple President Ann Weaver Hart said as she implored state lawmakers to reconsider another round of deep budget cuts. 

Pennsylvania’s fourth state-related university, Lincoln, receives just a fraction of the state support as the larger universities do.  Lincoln’s “general support” line item would be level-funded at $11.1-million dollars in the governor’s spending plan.

Governor Tom Corbett Proposes $27.139 Billion Budget

    Governor Tom Corbett has unveiled his budget proposal for the 2012-13 fiscal year. The $27.1 billion spending plan comes in $10 million under the current year’s actual budget and represents what the governor calls a realistic budget in difficult times.

    Prior to the Governor’s speech to a joint session of the General Assembly, state Budget Secretary Charles Zogby reported that the projected revenue shortfall for the current fiscal year is up to $719 million, putting more pressure on the governor and lawmakers who will have to craft the next budget.

    While basic education would see a slight increase in its General Fund subsidy, it would all but hold the line from last year’s overall number. The governor took the opportunity during his address to chastise political opponents, saying they misrepresented his education budget last year. The governor says he raised basic ed funding, but the evaporation of federal stimulus dollars results in an overall decrease in spending.

    Governor Corbett is proposing more deep cuts to higher education, which last year was slashed by about 20%. This year, the 14 state-owned universities would see their state funding slashed by another 20% under the governor’s plan. Meanwhile, three of the four state-related universities – Penn State, PITT and Temple – would average 30% cuts. Lincoln University would receive the same funding level as last year. Governor Corbett also announced the formation of a special panel to examine the way higher education is funded in Pennsylvania. He has appointed former state Senator Rob Wonderling to head that committee and report back in November.

    Next up in the state budget process: weeks of budget hearings in Harrisburg, then lawmakers will try to iron out a final spending plan that will be brought to the floors of the House and Senate by June 30th.


Democrats Take Their Swing

    Outnumbered in both the House and Senate, Democrats in Harrisburg have just one bullet in their gun, and on Monday they pulled the trigger.

    In both the House and Senate, Democrats blocked passage of several non-preferred spending bills associated with the state-related universities, which include Penn State, Pitt, Temple, Lincoln and the University of Pennsylvania. The schools would have to endure 18-19% cuts to their state funding under the bills, but the negative votes by Democrats could put 100% of the funding at risk.

    The move was possible because non-preferred appropriations bills require passage by a 2-thirds majority vote in both the House and Senate.

    Republicans characterized the move as a dangerous game of chicken, and say the negative votes could stall the funding until at least this fall or beyond. Democrats say they rejected the funding to hold out for further restoration of cuts to the schools. The latest proposals had restored hundreds of millions of dollars from Governor Tom Corbett’s original plan to trim the universities’ funding by more than 50%.

    Democrats want to tap into this year’s estimated $600-700 million in additional revenue collections to restore the cuts. Failure to pass funding for the state-supported universities would not stand in the way of passage of the overall General Fund budget plan, which is expected to get its first vote on the Senate floor as early as today.