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Pa. House Democrats renew call for end to blockade on state-related university aid

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Pa. House Democrats renew call for end to blockade on state-related university aid

Sep 26, 2023 | 6:30 am ET
By Peter Hall
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Pa. House Democrats renew call for end to blockade on state-related university aid
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University of Pittsburgh campus

Nearly three months after House Republican leaders blocked tuition aid for Pennsylvania’s state-related universities, Democratic lawmakers have renewed pressure on the GOP to stop keeping college students in limbo over “culture war” issues.

“Republicans are allowing their party’s extremists to legislate away the futures of Pennsylvania students based on the fabrication that Pitt is engaged in unethical research,” state Rep. Emily Kinkead, (D-Allegheny), said in a news conference last week.

Each year, Pennsylvania provides hundreds of millions of dollars in funding to the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State, Temple, and Lincoln universities to pay for in-state tuition discounts for Pennsylvania residents. 

When an appropriations bill that would provide roughly $640 million for the state-related universities came up for a vote in the House on July 6, it failed just six votes shy of the two-thirds majority required to pass it. Five of the six House Republican Caucus leaders opposed it. A bill separately approving funding for Lincoln did pass but has not been considered in the Senate.

Republicans said concern over a 7% increase in tuition over two years, minimal state oversight, and the universities’ exemption from the Right-to-Know Law were among the reasons for their opposition. 

But Democrats say that’s cover for continued conservative opposition to research using fetal stem cell tissue at Pitt, and to Penn State Health providing health care for transgender youth. 

Under what scenario does less money to Pitt, Penn State, Temple and Lincoln equal lower tuition?

– Rep. Peter Schweyer (D-Lehigh)

Senate Republican Leader Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, said it became clear in July after the House repeatedly tried to pass the state-related funding bill that they didn’t have the votes.

“We continue to look for the House to reconcile their internal disagreement and muster the votes needed to send those measures to the Senate,” Pittman said in a statement, without elaborating.

The GOP appeared to be preparing to reinforce its objection to tuition increases with a House Republican Policy Committee hearing on “The Cost of Higher Education,” scheduled for Wednesday. 

Chairperson Joshua Kail (R-Beaver), said that as the cost of higher education increases, it is important for lawmakers to look at what’s driving the cost and identify policy changes that could reduce them.

“Additionally, it is important all colleges and universities be good partners in providing a great education at an affordable price for Pennsylvania students. We cannot be a rubber-stamp government where we blindly approve state funding without solidifying accountability and transparency with our institutions of higher learning because public office is a public trust,” Kail said.  

The in-state tuition discount the funding pays for ranges from about $6,000 at Temple and Lincoln to $16,000 at Pitt.

Pitt’s funding has been in the sights of conservative lawmakers since 2019, when the Trump administration announced a policy to end federal funding for fetal tissue research. 

House Republicans ponder rider cutting funding to Pitt to prevent fetal tissue research

During last year’s budget negotiations, the issue of fetal tissue research emerged again as the then-Republican-led House voted to require state-related university administrators to swear under oath they don’t engage in research or experimentation using “fetal tissue obtained from an elective abortion,” to receive state funding.

Because GOP leaders knew the appropriations bill would not pass with the required two-thirds vote if it contained the ban, the language was grafted onto an unrelated bill about rural broadband access that passed with a 109-91 vote. 

Kinkead told the Capital-Star that the stem cell lines used in Pitt’s research program are decades old. In 2022, an outside investigation the university paid for found the program was “fully compliant with federal and state regulatory requirements.” 

“Temple and Lincoln University students are quite literally paying a price for the cowardice of House Republican leadership and their unwillingness to rein in these lies in order to do their jobs and govern,” Kinkead said.

House Health Committee Chairperson Dan Frankel (D-Allegheny) said he has endured numerous hearings in which witnesses attacked Pitt’s research. In reality, it saves lives, creates jobs in the community and provides hope for people with serious illnesses, he said.

“If my Republican colleagues want to fight about abortion, we can talk about that. If they want to talk about health care for LGBTQ+ Pennsylvanians, I will debate that, but leave Pitt students out of it,” Frankel said. 

House Education Committee Chairman Peter Schweyer, (D-Lehigh), told the Capital-Star that he would be open to discussing with Republicans some of their genuine and long held concerns about making the universities more accountable through performance-based budgeting and requiring them to disclose certain metrics.

But Schweyer said he doesn’t believe that the GOP lawmakers who oppose the state-related funding are truly concerned about tuition costs. 

“Under what scenario does less money to Pitt, Penn State, Temple and Lincoln equal lower tuition?” he asked. 

By holding up the funding, Republicans are attempting to use one of the few levers of power they have in the state budget process after losing the majority they held for 12 years,  Schweyer added.

He pointed to another recent impasse between the House and Senate, when Gov. Josh Shapiro reversed course on a a private school tuition voucher proposal. Like that matter, he said, the solution to the tuition funding blockade will be an honest and real conversation.

“There really isn’t a nicer way to describe what needs to happen,” Schweyer said. “Grown-ups need to behave like grown-ups.”

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) who sits on Pitt’s board of trustees, noted that the Republican caucus has thrown up other obstacles to state-related university funding in the past, including objecting to environmental studies and the hiring of certain professors.  

“It’s unconscionable that we have one caucus who year in and year out, holds these folks hostage year round because they want to push forward some ideological issue that simply doesn’t make sense to the people of Pennsylvania that they represent,” Costa said.

Costa told the Capital-Star that he believes the state-related university appropriations bill would easily pass in the Senate when it gets out of the House. 

State Rep. Paul Takac, (D-Centre), whose district includes Penn State’s University Park campus, said that while the universities have been able to cover the cost of in-state tuition discounts for students, that has been done at the expense of other aspects of their operations. 

For Penn State, which has 24 branch campuses, that’s a statewide impact on services such as the Cooperative Extension, which provides assistance to farmers, he said. 

“It’s not just our campus,” Takac said.