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Pa. House debates aid to Penn State, Pitt and other state-related schools

| Monday, Jan. 11, 2016, 4:15 p.m.

HARRISBURG — A push by the state House Republican majority to bypass a months-old state budget standoff and free up $578 million for state-related universities foundered Monday as party leaders failed to attract the required two-thirds majority.

Bills containing the annual state appropriations for four universities — Penn State, Pitt, Temple and Lincoln — and the University of Pennsylvania's veterinary school have languished as lawmakers from both major parties and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf struggled to make a deal on a state budget for the fiscal year that began July 1.

GOP proponents of immediately approving the university appropriations argued that negotiators for all sides supported the increases of at least 5 percent and contended that the cost could be absorbed by spending that the governor cut from a scaled-down GOP budget plan approved last month.

Wolf released most of the spending in the $30.3 billion GOP budget, including some long-delayed funding for schools and social services. He supports a $30.8 billion alternative that calls for about $500 million more in spending than the GOP plan and unspecified tax increases totaling more than $1 billion.

Majority Leader Dave Reed said lawmakers should approve the bills and “keep our commitment” to the universities and their students, now halfway through the academic year.

“The math adds up,” Rep. William Adolph, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said in urging that the bills be approved. “I know how people in this chamber feel about Penn State University.”

Democrats said approving an appropriation for non-state entities before a complete state budget is in place could violate the state constitution.

It's “an exercise in wishful thinking. The money is not there,” said Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Squirrel Hill. “We are on our way to a train wreck.”

Rep. Frank Dermody of Oakmont, the House minority leader, said enacting the university bills would amount to “teasing the students of the commonwealth because there's no money to pay for it.”

“It's time to tell the people of Pennsylvania the truth,” he said.

One by one, the bills fell at least 19 votes short of the needed 134-vote majority.

Most of the proposed increases are 5 percent, but Lincoln would get 7 percent boost and the Pennsylvania College of Technology, a Penn State affiliate, would get an 11 percent increase.

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