Before Pennsylvania lawmakers adjourned for their summer break this year, they failed to pass a bill that would provide select universities, including Pitt, with hundreds of millions of dollars in funding. At Pitt, most of this government funding gives in-state students a significant tuition discount.
A joint statement from the Student Government Board, Pitt College Democrats and Pitt College Republicans said eliminating this funding will have “an extremely negative impact” on students.
“To fail to directly fund these students without warning would show a disdain for higher education in the Commonwealth and a complete disregard for the welfare of students who trusted their government to maintain their support for staying in Pennsylvania for their education,” the statement said.
A University spokesperson said they’re “optimistic” the legislature will pass Pitt’s funding bill, but noted the importance of the Pitt community in securing the money.
“When the legislature is back in session, we will likely need students, alumni and the Pitt community to raise their voices by contacting their legislators and fighting for Pitt,” the spokesperson said.
At the end of July, Pitt announced tuition increases for all undergraduate students and said the proposed increased funding was “incorporated into our budget.”
“The University’s trustees recognized that our students and families needed clarity when they approved the budget for the current academic year,” the spokesperson said. “Pitt is developing contingency plans aimed at minimizing impacts to students if the commonwealth appropriates a lesser amount than anticipated.”
If the bill does not pass, it is unclear when the University will enact these “contingency plans,” how much tuition will be raised for in-state students and when students can expect to pay an increased tuition.
This article offers a look into the history, process and people behind this bill.
Every summer, Pennsylvania’s General Assembly, which is made up of the Senate and the House of Representatives, meets in Harrisburg to pass a general appropriations bill. An appropriations bill is the legislature that allocates money from the Pennsylvania government to programs such as infrastructure, agriculture and public education.
Among the bills they pass is an appropriation bill for Pennsylvania’s four state-related universities — Pitt, Penn State, Temple and Lincoln. Since 1966, when Pitt became a state-related institution, the University has received appropriations from the Pennsylvania government. This year’s bill, House Bill 612, proposes that Pitt receive $162 million to reduce tuition for in-state students, a 7.1% increase from last year’s appropriation and the first appropriation increase for Pitt since 2019. According to the University, state appropriations save in-state students about $16,000 per year.
HB 612 was supposed to pass before July 1, the start of the new fiscal year. However, after multiple failed attempts for approval in the House, the bill still has yet to pass.
This isn’t the first time political processes have caused late appropriations for Pitt.
In 2017, Pitt’s funding was delayed until late October due to issues passing a revenue package. 2019 saw House Republicans attempt to prevent Pitt from obtaining funding because of concerns over the University’s fetal tissue research, although the appropriations bill ultimately passed on time. Last year, House Republicans successfully delayed Pitt’s funding due to concerns about the fetal tissue research program persisting, even after an independent review in 2021 found the University in compliance with state and federal regulations.
A Pitt spokesperson said appropriation funding “has never been guaranteed.”
“We are concerned about the [predictability] of Pitt’s funding and therefore the university is in constant contact with our appropriators in Harrisburg advocating for our students,” the spokesperson said.
HB 612 was created in March when Gov. Josh Shapiro proposed it at the annual budget address.
After Shapiro’s proposal, the bill was sent to the House Appropriations Committee where hearings and debates were held to amend the bill before sending it to the House for voting.
In order for HB 612 to pass two requirements need to be met. First, a simple majority of lawmakers must vote in favor of the bill at least three times on three separate days.
Second, for the bill to pass from the House to the Senate, two-thirds of the votes must be in favor of passing the bill. This rule dates back to Pennsylvania’s Constitution of 1874, according to Bruce Ledewitz, a professor of law at Duquesne Kline School of Law, which notes that educational institutions “not under the absolute control of the Commonwealth” would only be granted appropriations if a two-thirds majority was reached in both the House and the Senate.
Currently, the House is divided evenly down the aisle with 101 Democrats, 101 Republicans and 1 empty seat due to the resignation of Allegheny County Executive candidate Sara Innamorato in July. Unless Republicans win in the special election to replace Innamorato, Democrats will hold the majority in the House until the 2024 midterms.
HB 612 has been considered at least three times on three separate days, fulfilling requirement number one, but due to the divided nature of the House, getting a two-thirds majority has proven difficult.
Although all House Democrats have consistently voted in favor of passing HB 612, House Republicans have generally opposed the bill. On the latest vote to pass HB 612, the bill fell six votes short of passing due to a lack of Republican support.
Even if the House passes HB 612, the bill will still have to face votes in the Senate, where Republicans hold the majority 28-22. As of now, there is no clear timeline for when HB 612 will pass.
The 253 legislators that make up the General Assembly all get to vote on whether or not Pitt and other state-related universities get appropriations funding each year. Some members, however, have had more of a role than others in creating, supporting and opposing HB 612.
Jordan Harris, a Democrat representing part of Philadelphia County, is the Majority Appropriations Committee Chair and HB 612’s prime sponsor. Harris has consistently voted in favor of passing HB 612, telling Pitt students to “pay attention right now to see who is supporting you” during a speech on the House floor.
“The bottom line is that this is about supporting the students at these four universities,” Harris said. “You can’t say that education is the elevator out of poverty, and then won’t finance the upkeep of that elevator for our young people. You can’t say to our young people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, but then don’t give them the danggone boots or the straps.”
Seth Grove, a Republican representing part of York County, is the Republican Appropriations Committee Chair and has consistently voted against HB 612. In a press release, Grove said universities need to be subject to the Right-to-Know law, which would allow the state government to request records from state-related colleges. He also cited the failure of university leadership to guarantee tuition freezes and a desire for appropriation funding to go directly to students as reasons why he opposed the bill.
Matthew Bradford, a Democrat representing part of Montgomery County, is the Majority Leader of the House. Bradford has consistently voted in favor of HB 612, saying House Democrats “are 100% committed” to listening to ideas proposed by House Republicans during a House floor speech.
“The elephant in the room is … there are some who have chosen not to vote yes for any university in any year, regardless, and every year, support has dwindled down because of the politicization of this process,” Bradford said.
Bryan Cutler, a Republican representing part of Lancaster County, is the Republican Leader of the House and has consistently voted against HB 612. During a speech on the House floor the night of July 6, Cutler reflected on his trade school experience and called for appropriation money to be distributed to students instead of state-related institutions.
Natalie Mihalek, a Republican representing parts of Allegheny and Washington counties, is a member of the House Appropriations Committee. Mihalek is a Pitt alumna and a current Pitt Board of Trustees member, and has consistently voted against passing HB 612. A statement from Mihalek said she wants the method of distributing appropriations to be “advantageous for all involved.”
“Perhaps the current system of sending money to state-related universities is still the most effective. But I want to arrive at a conclusion after exhaustive research and not just because we were afraid to break away from the status quo,” Mihalek said.
Groups of like-minded lawmakers, called caucuses, have also impacted voting. The Pennsylvania Freedom Caucus is a group of 23 conservative representatives whose initiatives include “reigning in regulations, zero-based budgeting and issues that increase the scope and powers of the government,” according to a press release last December.
While there is no official statement from the Pennsylvania Freedom Caucus about appropriations for state-related universities, all 17 members of the Pennsylvania Freedom Caucus listed on State Freedom Caucus Network’s website have consistently voted against HB 612.
Dawn Keefer, chairwoman of the Pennsylvania Freedom Caucus and a Republican representing part of York County, said she opposed HB 612 during a speech on the House floor because she supports “equitable funding for all kids” and wants appropriation money to be distributed directly to students in the form of vouchers, allowing students to put that money toward paying for any Pennsylvania institution beyond high school.
“We have given record levels of funding to these institutions, and yet the tuition continues to rise above any level, or any student’s ability to repay that debt,” Keefer said. “We need to do better, we can do better. The opportunity is here.”
HB 612 won’t receive action until the House reconvenes, which is scheduled for Sept. 26.
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