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Higher ed notes relief at plan for smaller cuts

| Wednesday, May 11, 2011

HARRISBURG -- University officials on Tuesday expressed relief and cautious optimism after House Republicans offered their version of a state budget that would restore most of the funding for higher education that Republican Gov. Tom Corbett had proposed to cut.

The House Republican budget would use $471 million in proposed welfare savings to restore money for state-related universities such as the University of Pittsburgh and Penn State and 14 state-owned universities. It would reduce Corbett's proposed 50 percent cut to 25 percent for state-related universities and 15 percent for state-owned schools.

That means the University of Pittsburgh, for example, would get 75 percent of the state funding it received in its 2010-11 state budget, according to the House Appropriations Committee.

Pitt spokesman John Fedele said the lawmakers' proposal is "a major improvement for Pennsylvania students, their families and Pennsylvania's public research universities."

"There is still a long way to go in the budget process, but we are hopeful that positive developments will continue," Fedele said.

Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers called it "good news."

"We consider this a significant forward step, and we're confident that our students and their families will applaud this legislative action by the House," she said. "We'll continue to make our case with the Senate in the days ahead, and we of course plan to monitor the legislative process as we approach the end of the fiscal year" on June 30.

State System of Higher Education officials, cautious about commenting publicly on the issue, declined to discuss the GOP proposal.

Rep. Dave Reed, R-Indiana, whose district includes Indiana University of Pennsylvania, said officials there anticipated a cut this year because of the state's dire financial situation and the loss of federal stimulus money.

Corbett proposed the higher education cuts as part of an overall budget plan introduced in March to cover a $4.2 billion state deficit.

Corbett's spokesman Kevin Harley said he "looks forward to the start of negotiations with House Republicans and the three other caucuses." The governor has insisted any proposed savings from welfare must be real.

"I feel very confident the figure we put on the table is not only verifiable but the tip of the iceberg, in terms of waste, fraud and abuse," said House Majority Leader Mike Turzai, R-Bradford Woods.

The GOP lawmakers would increase welfare spending by 1.3 percent, but calculated savings by addressing the error rate in Medicaid spending, copays for welfare recipients, increased use of generic drugs and elimination of discretionary spending by the Department of Public Welfare.

At the K-12 level, school district officials said they're encouraged by the suggestion of less drastic cuts. The budget would spend $210 million more than Corbett's on K-12.

"Any bit that comes back is getting us closer to where we were in the past few years and being able to provide the same quality education in our district," said Kristen Davis, spokeswoman for McKeesport Area School District, which could furlough as many as 96 employees, including 35 teachers, because of a $7 million deficit. McKeesport could lose about $4 million from the state.

Beth Ehrlich, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction in Clairton City Schools, said restoring money would fund full-day kindergarten and tutoring. Both programs are endangered by the governor's proposed elimination of block grant funding.

"We've been tossing around numbers to try to find the money to pay for that," Ehrlich said. "If the state might choose to go with half the money, of course I'm thinking that would be great."

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