HARRISBURG -- State funding for the University of Pittsburgh and three other universities could be in jeopardy as Democratic lawmakers flex what little muscle they have in a Capitol controlled by Republicans.
Democrats are rebelling against GOP cuts to the state-related universities, the only spending bills that require a two-thirds vote of each chamber.
"There isn't any doubt that this is the one place where Democrats can wield some power. It's the one place where they do have leverage," said G. Terry Madonna, political scientist at Frankin & Marshall College in Allentown. "This could get very dicey."
Democrats are threatening to use their votes to get Republicans to allocate some of an estimated $650 million surplus to state-related universities as well as other education and health programs.
But if Democrats block passage, Pitt, Temple University, Lincoln University and Penn State University could wind up with nothing. So could the University of Pennsylvania's veterinary school.
What's more likely is that the schools would have to wait for funding, possibly until lawmakers return from their summer break. That scenario occurred at least once before -- in 1977 when universities had to pay $1.4 million in interest on loans they took so they could operate until December when the Legislature approved a $300 million appropriation.
Historically, funding for the state-related universities is considered separately from the general fund budget, which this year is proposed to be $27.15 billion.
Both the House and Senate are poised to vote this evening on separate bill packages providing funding to the state-related schools. Approval of either package would require subsequent action because both chambers must approve the same bills in order for them to be sent to the governor.
Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, said that holding out for more funding this year would cause severe problems for students and schools by making it more difficult to set tuition rates. While the schools will see cuts compared to last year, the negotiated spending figure is an improvement over the governor's original proposal.
"We've done as well as we can do working in the parameters that we're working in," Mr. Scarnati said. "If they want to hold a gun to their head and take a hostage, so let it be, but I believe that the ramifications of a late state budget will be strictly on their shoulders."
During a House Appropriations Committee meeting this morning, Rep. Scott Petri, R-Bucks, had a warning for colleagues across the aisle: If the bills don't pass "these institutions will receive no appropriation. Zero, nil, nada."
Under the proposal negotiated by Republican leaders, the four schools would get a total of $545 million, down from the current $700 million, but $181 million more than Gov. Tom Corbett had originally proposed.
Locally, Pitt would get $138 million in state funding, down from the current $173 million appropriation but $58 million more than the governor initially proposed.
The state provides between 8 and 20 percent of the schools' overall operating budgets.
"We want those institutions being funded at a higher level than what the Republicans are proposing, and the money is there," said Bill Patton, spokesman for House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Oakmont.
For those in the Senate, the issue is broader than funding for state-related schools.
"There's nothing about this budget so far that we like," said Philadelphia Sen. Vince Hughes, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee.
Because the budget doesn't sufficiently fund health care, basic education and economic development, he said, Senate Democrats aren't prepared to offer necessary votes for state-related schools.
If all Republicans vote for the bill, four Senate Democrats and 24 House Democrats would have to cross party lines passage.
"Anything is possible at this point, but this is one of several ways Democrats can influence the budget process," Mr. Patton said.
Annemarie Mountz, spokeswoman for Penn State, had no comment regarding the possibility of school funding being held up in the legislature's partisan dispute, but said the school is grateful for every dollar that can be restored.
"We don't think it's good for us to speculate on what is happening now in Harrisburg," she said.
There was no immediate comment from Pitt.
Staff writers Laura Olson and Bill Schackner contributed. Harrisburg Bureau Chief Tracie Mauriello: firstname.lastname@example.org or 717-787-2141.