witf's Top Five Stories of 2011: The Fight Over Higher Ed Funding

Written by Scott Detrow, StateImpact Pennsylvania Reporter | Dec 21, 2011 10:01 PM

A debate over state funding for higher education dominated the state Capitol this spring and summer, and ranks among witf’s top stories of 2011.

During Democrat Ed Rendell’s two terms as governor, state spending increased every single year.

Republican Tom Corbett made it clear he was taking Pennsylvania in a different direction, when he unveiled his budget on March 8th, which eliminated more than $1 billion in spending. “I said we’d cut,” Corbett told state lawmakers. “I’m not asking you to read my lips. I’m asking you to read my budget.”

Most of those proposed reductions came in education spending. He wanted to cut the money Pennsylvania sends to state-related universities and the State System of Higher Education in half.

Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, blew a gasket. “It’s unconscionable that we’re going to cut 50 percent of higher [education], as it relates to our state-related, our state systems,” Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa said after the budget was announced.  “Somebody just asked the question about, how are we going to deal with that? The outcome is simple: it’s going to mean higher tuition costs for our families that are already struggling to put their kids through school.”

Corbett’s budget secretary, Charles Zogby, responded that the governor was simply doing what voters wanted. “I think folks must have been living under a rock last fall when the gubernatorial campaign was going on,” he said to critics, during an interview with witf.  “He said very emphatically he’s not going to raise taxes. He’s not going to raise fees. That’s the budget he presented. He didn’t raise taxes. He didn’t raise fees. I don’t think that should come as any surprise to anyone.”

Campaign promises aside, Penn State President Graham Spanier warned the cuts would decimate his institution. “In agriculture alone, we are talking about 440 employees that we would have to lay off under the budget scenario that is out there,” he told the Senate in March. “These are not made up numbers. These are not numbers designed to shock people. These are actual projections.”

Corbett all but called Spanier a liar, insisting the claims were a “stunning” exaggeration.  (The animosity between the two men was put into context several months later, when an Office of the Attorney General investigation into an alleged cover-up of sexual abuse at Penn State became public.)

As spring posturing turned into summer negotiating, the higher education cuts were decreased. Pitt, Temple, Lincoln and the State System Schools ultimately lost about twenty percent of their state funding. Penn State University’s funding went down by thirty three percent.

Still, Governor Corbett and the Republicans who run the House and Senate managed to cut more than a billion dollars from the state budget.

And in another departure from the Rendell years, they got the bill signed into law on the June 30th deadline.

Check out witf's other top five stories of 2011:

The fight over higher education funding

Wild weather

The never-ending natural gas drilling impact fee debate

Harrisburg's financial woes

 The Jerry Sandusky scandal

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