State House panel acts to restore college spending cuts in budget

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HARRISBURG -- As the contours of the $27.66 billion state budget agreement beween Gov. Tom Corbett and Republican legislative leaders came into focus on Thursday, there were signs that publicly funded universities would avoid deep cuts next year.

When the governor, a Republican, and leaders from the House and Senate announced a framework Wednesday for spending in the fiscal year beginning July 1, they declined to discuss more than their agreement on a bottom line. But by midday Thursday, a House panel had approved legislation to undo a 30 percent funding cut the governor had proposed for the University of Pittsburgh, Penn State University and Temple University. Legislative aides said the maneuver reflected agreement between budget negotiators.

"They are being flat-funded," said Steve Miskin, a spokesman for House Republicans. "Everybody is in agreement on that."

The governor's office declined to address the particulars of higher education funding, but spokesman Eric Shirk said better-than-expected state revenue collections in recent months would permit a higher level of spending.

The framework announced Wednesday matches the spending level approved by the Senate in May, surpassing the governor's February proposal by more than $500 million. Mr. Corbett's plan for a $27.14 billion budget would have had the state spend slightly less than the $27.16 billion available this year.

"We're happy that revenues have come in above projection and will allow us to add funding above what was originally proposed," Mr. Shirk said. "The governor is working hard to restore funding to key areas of the budget."

The greatest point of consensus Thursday in the Capitol was the tentative nature of the agreement, as legislative leaders and aides stressed that any deal requires legislative approval. House Republicans received their first briefing in the afternoon, and Senate Republicans planned to describe the plan in caucus on Monday.

Sen. Pat Browne of Lehigh, the Republican whip, said the agreement remains fluid, but he pointed to the House vote on the state-supported universities as a sign that restoration could be on the way.

"I think it makes it a lot more likely," he said. "There has been absolutely an interest in restoring funding for higher education, but that has to be finalized with our caucus members."

The universities welcomed the news, though representatives pointed to the legislative steps remaining before an accord among leaders can be signed into law.

"We at Pitt await the passage of the final legislation and hope for restoration of our appropriation," said Robert Hill, vice chancellor for public affairs at Pitt.

The system of 14 state-owned universities would sustain a 20 percent funding cut under the budget proposed by Mr. Corbett, but Mike Stoll, a spokesman for House Appropriations Committee Chairman Bill Adolph, R-Delaware, said negotiators agreed to pursue level funding for those institutions as well as the state-supported universities.

Both the governor and Senate had proposed level funding for Lincoln University, the fourth state-supported institution.

The budget framework outlined to rank-and-file lawmakers expands a program of tax credits for businesses that donate to scholarships for non-public primary and secondary schools while targeting additional funding to students in the worst-performing schools.

Rep. Mike Vereb, R-Montgomery, said negotiators told him the tentative agreement includes $25 million to expand the current Educational Improvement Tax Credit program, which is currently funded at $75 million. An additional $50 million would be available to students who attend a school among the state's lowest-achieving 15 percent.

A proposal for such an expansion was introduced earlier this month by Rep. Jim Christiana, R-Beaver, and would require approval from both the House and Senate.

Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, said Senate Democrats were involved in developing the spending number in the Senate proposal, which matches the level announced Wednesday, as well as working to target which programs received funding.

He said he had been told by Republican leaders of the parameters of the budget deal.

In the House, however, Democrats said Thursday night that they had yet to hear from their Republican counterparts about the agreement. Earlier in the day, Rep. Joe Markosek of Monroeville, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said he had learned of the budget framework through news reports.

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Karen Langley: or 717-787-2141. Laura Olson contributed. First Published June 22, 2012 12:00 AM


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