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After months of tension, Pitt funding clears critical hurdle in state House

Pitt researchers receive fetal tissue from women who donate it. The program receives federal grant money.

  • Kate Giammarise/WESA
The Cathedral of Learning towers over the University of Pittsburgh campus in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh Monday, July 8, 2019.

 Gene J. Puskar / AP Photo

The Cathedral of Learning towers over the University of Pittsburgh campus in the Oakland section of Pittsburgh Monday, July 8, 2019.

What had been shaping up as a crisis for the University of Pittsburgh — and the state’s already late budget — may well have been averted Wednesday night, as Harrisburg Republicans sidelined a legislative effort to force Pitt to abandon fetal tissue research. The House passed a measure to provide nearly $155 million in funding to Pitt, bypassing an effort by anti-abortion conservatives to force Pitt to abandon the research if it wanted taxpayer dollars.

“It was a good result,” said state Rep. Dan Frankel, a Squirrel Hill Democrat who has been a leading supporter of Pitt throughout the debate. “I was prepared to go to war, but there wasn’t any reason to.”

Indeed, after weeks of dispute, and months of tension, the House voted in favor of sending nearly $600 million to Pitt and three other state-related universities —Lincoln, Penn State, and Temple — without any floor debate. But there was more than a little legislative shuffling involved.

Originally House Republicans had attached the fetal-tissue prohibition to a Senate bill which provided funding for the universities. That left Pitt supporters with a difficult choice: vote for the spending along with a research ban, or vote against any funding for the universities — which use the state’s appropriation to help pay for the “in-state” tuition discount for Pennsylvania residents.

Gene J. Puskar / AP Photo

One likely conservative target is the University of Pittsburgh, a private school that received $154 million in state support last year, most of the money earmarked to help keep in-state students’ tuition low.

On Wednesday night, however, Republican leaders split that language into two parts. The fetal tissue ban was added as an amendment to another state Senate bill that focused on rural broadband. The appropriation for Pitt and the other schools, meanwhile, was added as an amendment to a different spending bill — without the fetal tissue prohibition. That made it possible for the House to send the Senate a “clean” funding bill for higher education — while also allowing abortion foes to take a separate vote in support of the tissue ban.

Republicans expressed disappointment at how their efforts to stop the research played out. “”We don’t know what the Senate is going to do when the bill goes to the Senate,” said Republican Kathy Rapp of Warren. “But … one baby’s life is worth more than the grand total of what we give these universities.”

The bill with the funding and no fetal tissue ban passed by 145 to 55. Support from Allegheny County’s delegation, both Democrat and Republican, was unanimous — a contrast from the House vote which sought to impose the fetal tissue ban in the first plan. That earlier vote garnered support from most area Republicans including Carrie DelRosso, Valerie Gaydos, Rob Mercuri and Natalie Mihalek — each of whom effectively reversed their earlier votes and backed funding without strings attached Wednesday.

The bill that included the fetal tissue ban also passed the House, 109 to 91, in a nearly party-line vote. But while both bills now head to the Senate, they likely face very different futures.

Having already passed the funding language and the bill it was attached to, the Senate is all but certain to approve it again. The fetal tissue ban, meanwhile, could easily be stripped from the bill it was joined to — or else be vetoed by Governor Tom Wolf, a Democrat.

Such legislative contortions were necessary, said Frankel, because Republicans “put themselves in a corner and they needed a way out. So they crafted this mechanism to give their right-wing member a vote that isn’t going anywhere.”

Pitt declined to comment Wednesday night, but a spokesman referred to an earlier statement in which the school said it “devotes every dollar of general support appropriation it receives from the state to help support a tuition discount. … We’re optimistic the legislature will preserve this investment in our students.”

Still, while the controversy over higher-education funding appears to be resolved this year, it is likely to remain a potent issue — one whose outcome may be very different a year from now depending on the outcome of the elections this fall.

“The governor having veto power was essential to having the leverage we needed,” said Frankel. “If [Republican] Doug Mastriano is elected governor and the Republicans retain majorities in both chambers, it will be a very different environment.”

WITF’s Sam Dunklau contributed to this story.

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