State Representative Gibbons talks to students about budget cuts

By Gretchen Andersen

When asked if he thought Pitt could see an increase in state appropriations in the future, state… When asked if he thought Pitt could see an increase in state appropriations in the future, state Rep. Jaret Gibbons wasn’t sure.

“It’s hard to say,” said Gibbons, D-Lawrence, Butler, Beaver, who is a Pitt alumnus. “It’s unlikely for an increase in funding. We will have the same governor for another two years, and there are elections in the fall … so it all depends.”

On Feb. 8, Gov. Tom Corbett proposed a 30 percent cut in state appropriations for the next fiscal year to three of the four state-related universities: Pitt, Temple and Penn State. Last year, Corbett proposed a 50 percent cut in state funding to the state-related universities, but the state passed the budget in June with a 19 percent cut.

“If we don’t invest in education, it does make a major impact on our future and the workforce of the future, with growing our economy and getting out of the recession,” said Gibbons, who successfully ran for office against a 20-year incumbent during his last year of law school at Pitt.

Gibbons’ comment followed a Q&A session during this year’s second installment of Pancakes and Politics, an event during which students and politicians eat breakfast from Pamela’s Diner and Panera Bread. About 20 graduate and undergraduate students attended the 90-minute-long event hosted by the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly and Student Government Board Thursday morning in the O’Hara Student Center.

Gibbons, who called himself a socially conservative Democrat, spoke about several different initiatives he is working on, such as moving Pennsylvania to a unicameral legislature and issues like Marcellus Shale and Corbett’s budget proposal.

Gibbons noted that when the state cuts funding to universities, those universities have to resort to measures like increasing tuition and cutting staff or programs. After this year’s 19 percent cut in state funding, Pitt covered 40 percent of its $70 million budget gap by increasing in-state tuition by 8.5 percent and out-of-state tuition by 4 percent. The University covered the other 60 percent through various spending cuts.

“Unfortunately, it comes back to the pockets of the students,” Gibbons said.

Paul Supowitz, vice chancellor for governmental relations and associate general counsel at Pitt, was in attendance and said the state budget is a “matter of priority” to Pitt.

“As our Chancellor said yesterday in the [House appropriation] budget hearings, it’s like they are trying to push us to no longer be a public university. The cuts are a detriment to Pitt students and Pennsylvania kids and families who want to attend Pitt,” Supowitz said.

Supowitz said Pitt is an engine for the local economy, and investment in higher education has both long-term and short-term benefits. But he noted that state funding cuts to state-related universities have occurred in Pitt’s history before.

Supowitz said Pitt is fighting the budget cuts on “all fronts — from the Board of Trustees to the Chancellor, alumni, staff, faculty and students.”

“We recognize there is red ink, but we have gone far above our fair share,” Supowitz said of the disproportionate financial burden put on Pitt by the state.

Gibbons spoke about the importance of writing personal letters to students’ local legislators and said he can tell the difference when a letter is personal, which he said is more effective.

Supowitz said students should get five friends and write personal letters to Harrisburg officials about the state budget cuts. He also advised students to attend Pitt Day in Harrisburg on March 13.

Gibbons also spoke about government reform in Pennsylvania. He said he is pushing for a unicameral state legislature because it would be more efficient and less expensive. By eliminating both the House and Senate, there could instead be one larger chamber that has smaller districts so legislatures could connect with their constituents.

During the Q&A session, Gibbons addressed the Marcellus Shale impact fee, which would allow local municipalities to tax gas wells. Corbett passed the fee two weeks ago, but Gibbons, who said he was with his wife who was giving birth to their second child at the time, did not vote.

Gibbons said that some Democratic legislators called the impact fee too low of a tax, while other Democrats have said it was good to pass any sort of tax.

“It’s hard to turn down the money, and it should have been more. Some say it’s a bit of a win for the governor to even sign off on it. I might have voted for it. I don’t know,” Gibbons said.

Adrienne Spillar, a graduate religious studies student who attended the breakfast, said although any kind of fee is a good thing, the environment must also be considered.

“In the long term, the environment is neglected for corporate interests,” Spillar said.