HARRISBURG, PA — Chancellor Patrick Gallagher’s message is clear: With Pitt, Pennsylvania wins.
That was his mantra Tuesday as he and about 200 faculty, staff and students met with lawmakers during the annual Pitt Day in Harrisburg, according to Kenny Donaldson, the director of the regional clubs for Pitt Alumni Association, one of the principal organizers of the trip.
Eight months into the budget impasse, the University’s visit and Gallagher’s message, along with its accompanying website WithPitt, were meant at first to push state lawmakers to approve funding for Pitt, and now to urge Gov. Tom Wolf to sign the budget and additional appropriation bills the legislature passed last week for Pitt and Pennsylvania’s other state-related universities.
“This funding makes sure that people who are coming to these institutions tend to stay around that area. So that’s what we are really endorsing, which is that by funding this, they are funding the future of the state,” Donaldson said.
Through in-office meetings with legislators, Gallagher and members of the Pitt community from all five Pitt campuses urged lawmakers to support Pennsylvania’s state-related universities and Wolf to sign a state budget and a bill that would restore Pitt’s funding.
In the past, Pitt students and administrators have used the Day to ask state lawmakers for general support. This year, Gallagher spoke from Pitt’s wallet.
“There is more of a sense of crisis this year,” Gallagher said. “What people are looking for, namely actions on our appropriation bill, is much more specific [this year]. In the past, it’s more about strong support or general support [for higher education].”
Since Pennsylvania’s 2015-2016 fiscal year started in July, the state has withheld nearly $147 million from Pitt due to lawmakers’ inability to pass an appropriation bill. Now, Wolf is left with a Republican-passed budget and four additional bills that would restore funding to Pitt and Pennsylvania’s three other state-related universities sitting on his desk.
In a release to provide guidance for attending students about lobbying, the University said Wolf should sign the appropriation bills. If he chose to veto them, the release said, the University would urge lawmakers to override the veto. In Pennsylvania, it takes a two-thirds majority of the General Assembly to override a Governor’s veto.
“In this messy process, nothing is more important than for our lawmakers and our elected officials to hear directly from people who are impacted,” Gallagher said at the state Capitol during the reception at 3 p.m. “With us, Pennsylvania wins. That is really the case that we are trying to make.”
Before entering the Pennsylvania State Capitol, students received a sticker that says “With Pitt, PA wins” and a packet of information that detailed Pitt’s impact on Pennsylvania’s economic and technological development, such as the high number of Pennsylvanians Pitt employs and the tax revenue it generates.
During the visit to the Capitol, each Pitt student is assigned a legislator, whom they meet with in a group. Students from Oakland had the opportunity to talk to state representatives from both parties, including Dan Frankel, D-Allegheny, who is in charge of the Oakland and Squirrel Hill district.
“We’ve endured four years of cutting in higher education appropriation. Before [Tom Corbett] came in, higher education got cut for 20 percent,” Frankel said. “So our goal is not only to restore those cuts but help university appropriation to grow in the future. We know there is inflation and we know that the appropriation has to go along with the minimum rate of inflation. We know that it is a great investment and it pays off.”
After meeting with Republican state Sen. Randy Vulakovich, Stuart Benson — a lawyer, Pitt alumnus and former representative of Pitt’s law school to the board of directors at the Pitt Alumni Association — determined that the budget issue was much more complicated than most people thought.
“Today we’ve learned and gotten feedbacks that have a different spin on it than what we read in the paper,” Benson said. “We are here to learn what the practical problems are. It’s not always simplistic. Fund education or not fund education — there are also other issues.”
Benson said the passing of the budget involves some more knotty questions into the ethics reform of campaign financing and limitations on contribution.
Despite his efforts, Gallagher acknowledged the debate over Pitt’s finances is part of a “bigger and broader” statewide debate.
“What the lawmakers are dealing with is really not about support for us directly. It’s about taxing and revenue and the amount of spending for the state government,” Gallagher said.
In a statement on March 16, Wolf said the budget was still “unbalanced” and would create a year-end deficit that would “force Pennsylvania of a fiscal cliff.” Schools, Wolf said, would immediately feel the effects of a potential $45 million cut to basic education.
According to SGB Board member Robert A. Tessier, some Pitt student organizations, academic departments and department-funded student organizations are already experiencing the pressures from lack of funding.
Tessier did not disclose the names of the organizations.
“Our budget, the budgets of Temple and Penn State are being used as a kind of a leverage point, a bargaining chip where they shouldn’t be. It’s very apolitical. These are universities,” Tessier said.
At this point, even with this year’s budget resolved, representatives already have fears about next year’s financial situation, Frankel said. The goal now is to find a long-term solution.
“So the fight is about stability for everybody, predictability with sustainable revenue that prevents us from falling into this impasse year after year,” Frankel said.
After a private meeting with Wolf, Gallagher praised participants for pressing the government on issues of rising tuition and increased student debt, among other topics, but said they cannot stop after one day.
“What you did today I hope is just the beginning of your engagement,” Gallagher said. “We need to stay on this in the long term and make sure our voice is heard in a clear, honest, compelling way.”
According to Benson, Pitt Day in Harrisburg influenced legislators simply because they could hear firsthand how the budget impasse has affected universities.
“Let’s pretend you are a legislator — who would you want to hear a story from about what education means and what the state funding can do to help lower your education as an in-state student?” Benson said. “A legislator wants to hear from a student more than from anybody else.”