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Bill would send millions to 4 Pa. universities while also forcing them to freeze tuition

The Pennsylvania House has approved $642 million in funding for Lincoln, Penn State, Pitt, and Temple universities. It’s unclear if the state Senate will get on board.

  • Stephen Caruso/SpotlightPA
Pennsylvania State Capitol building in Harrisburg on July 26, 2023.

 Amanda Berg / For Spotlight PA

Pennsylvania State Capitol building in Harrisburg on July 26, 2023.

Spotlight PA is an independent, nonpartisan, and nonprofit newsroom producing investigative and public-service journalism that holds power to account and drives positive change in Pennsylvania.

After months of gridlock, the state House this week approved a bill with bipartisan backing that would provide hundreds of millions of dollars to four universities so they can discount Pennsylvania students’ tuition.

Finalizing the annual funding for these schools would be an accomplishment for the divided legislature, which has been dogged by partisan disagreement and bitterness over a rocky budget cycle.

But the outcome still isn’t assured. Skepticism from state Senate Republicans over the measure’s proposed spending boost and outright opposition from one school to a legislatively mandated tuition freeze leaves the issue far from resolved.

Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro has already signed a $45.4 billion budget bill that allocates $593 million to the four state-related universities: Lincoln, Penn State, Pitt, and Temple. But to distribute the money, the legislature needs to approve additional legislation by a two-thirds vote — a tricky bar for the closely divided state House.

In recent years, conservative lawmakers in the lower chamber have increasingly viewed the funding votes as proxies for issues like abortion and trans health care. Republican leadership has also asked the state-related schools to freeze tuition and expand the amount of information they release about their internal operations.

On Monday, the caucus got its wish.

In a near-unanimous vote, the state House passed a Republican-sponsored bill to expand the amount of information that these universities must publicly release, including all contracts over $5,000, minutes from meetings of their boards of trustees, and an additional 175 of the universities’ top salaries. The bill requires the schools to share much of the information on their websites in a searchable and sortable format.

The bill had the blessings of the schools, which already release some of the required data.

In a separate vote, the state House voted 145-57 to approve $642 million in support for the state-related schools. The bill increases allocations beyond the level lawmakers approved in their initial spending plan this summer, with funding for Penn State, Pitt, and Temple increasing by 7%, and funding for Lincoln by 20%.

The bill was amended before the final vote to include a GOP-authored provision that requires the universities to freeze tuition for all students for the 2024-25 school year.

Legislation to fund the universities repeatedly failed on the state House floor over the summer. But with the transparency bill and tuition freeze, 19 state House Republicans flipped their vote and backed the funding.

At a press conference Tuesday, state House Republican leadership celebrated the twin proposals as victories for students, and proof that their opposition was worthwhile.

“Without the fortitude of the House Republican Caucus, this tuition freeze would not have been possible,” state Rep. Joshua Kail (R., Beaver) said. “The reason why this language was put in was because this caucus stuck to its guns.”

State House Democrats, too, found things to celebrate, namely the increase in funding.

“The truth of the matter is, this should have been done back in June,” said Appropriations Committee Chair Jordan Harris (D., Philadelphia), referring to the constitutional budget deadline. “But we’re glad to see that our colleagues are able to put up the votes to get this done, to get this much-needed remedy for our state-related universities.”

For any of the legislation to make it to Shapiro’s desk, the Republican-controlled state Senate must be on board.

Lawmakers in that chamber have already raised concerns about the increased spending in the funding bill, which is roughly $49 million higher than what was allocated to the schools in the budget Shapiro signed into law.

In a statement, state Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman (R., Indiana) said he was pleased the lower chamber “was able to finally reconcile their internal disagreements” but noted that the numbers “do not reflect the funding we contemplated when balancing the budget earlier this year.”

“We will be reviewing the House product and determine further action upon our return to session,” Pittman said. The chamber’s next session day is Monday, Nov. 13.

Even with the funding bump, the legislatively mandated tuition freeze raised concerns with Penn State.

In a statement provided by a spokesperson, the university said the proposed tuition freeze would “undermine” the Board of Trustees’ “authority to set tuition” and result in a $54 million loss. According to its most recent financial statement, the university brought in $1.8 billion from tuition and fees in 2022.

Even with the boost, Penn State said the current funding falls short of the $657 million lawmakers approved for state-related universities in the 2010-11 budget.

“Our elected officials cannot expect Penn State to offer a world-class education to our students while providing state funding near the lowest level in the nation,” the university said.

The school also noted that it has already frozen tuition rates this year and next year for a little under 16,500 in-state students who attend one of Penn State’s 19 Commonwealth Campuses spread across the state.

Currently, about 88,000 students are enrolled across the system, according to Penn State’s Data Digest.

Other schools’ responses were more muted. Jared Stonesifer, spokesperson for Pitt, said that the university “appreciates our longstanding and robust partnership with the commonwealth, and we look forward to continued conversations with both lawmakers and the administration as this process moves forward in the weeks ahead.”

A spokesperson for Lincoln declined to comment. Temple did not reply to a request for comment.

The state-related universities are not fully controlled by the commonwealth. They are run by boards of trustees with members selected by internal elections and state appointments, and they offer a tuition discount for in-state students funded with state dollars.

State funding for the discount has historically been approved through legislation that, due to an 1870s constitutional provision, requires approval from two-thirds of the legislature.

State House Democrats tried to circumvent the requirement earlier this year by approving a grant program whose eligible recipients were narrowly tailored to fit the universities, a tactic that has been used to fund other private groups in the past.

The grant funding passed the state House in October as part of an omnibus budget-enabling code bill. However, state Senate Republicans expressed opposition to the overall package, which also included several other Democratic priorities.

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