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State money for Pitt, Penn State on hold until revenue plan passes

Debra Erdley
| Wednesday, July 19, 2017, 5:51 p.m.

First it did, and then it didn't.

Although Gov. Tom Wolf included around $600 million in his budget for the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State — the state's two flagship schools — as well as Temple and tiny Lincoln University and the state Senate signed off on that proposal, the schools found themselves in dry dock when the $32 billion budget headed from the state House to Wolf on June 30.

Thanks to an obscure Depression-era court ruling, the state-related universities that enrolled more than 175,000 students statewide last year have yet to make it back into the budget.

The 14 state-owned universities that comprise the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, however, were funded at $453.1 million. Although there is no intention to eliminate support for the state-related universities, Steve Miskin, a spokesman for the majority House Republicans, said an appellate court ruling dating back to the 1930s laid down the law on subsidies to the schools known as non-preferred entities.

Miskin said the ruling forbids the state to disburse funds to non-preferred entities unless a full spending and revenue plan has passed. While state lawmakers adopted a $32 billion spending plan last month and sent it to Wolf, they failed to advance a revenue plan to fund the document.

House members are on a six-hour call back notice as leaders attempt to craft an agreement on a revenue plan to plug holes in the budget.

“Even if we had included (the universities), the governor could not fund them because of the non-preferred clause,” Miskin said, referring to the schools' status as entities outside the full control of the state.

The universities, which use state subsidies to underwrite tuition for in-state students, often wait until there is a state budget to adopt fall tuition. Despite the uncertainty surrounding this budget, the schools are acting on tuition now to get bills out to students.

Temple adopted a 2.5 percent tuition increase last week and Pitt followed suit Monday. Penn State is scheduled to act on tuition later this week.

“Despite the continuing budget discussions in Harrisburg that affect Pitt, we felt that it was important to approve a final budget for next year and not pass along the uncertainty to our students and their families,” Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said in a statement announcing the tuition increase.

Gallagher said continued state support was a “fundamental assumption” in the $2.2 billion budget Pitt adopted Monday. He said endowment returns helped keep the tuition increase at the school's Oakland campus at 2.5 percent.

Debra Erdley is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com or via Twitter @deberdley_trib.

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