Samuel O’Neal for Spotlight PA
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HARRISBURG — After repeated legislative failures, Pennsylvania state House members have left Harrisburg indefinitely without passing funding for the commonwealth’s state-related universities.
Appropriations for Lincoln University, Penn State University, Temple University, and the University of Pittsburgh must pass the legislature by a two-thirds majority, a high bar in the state House, which Democrats control by a single vote. State House Democratic leaders ended Friday’s session with no resolution and blamed Republicans for the deadlock.
“It’s frankly the absence of Republican leaders that failed to get them over the line,” said House Majority Leader Matt Bradford (D., Montgomery). “We look forward to them coming to their senses.”
The legislature passes bills that provide state funding to these four universities during summer budget negotiations, which so far this year have been fraught and are currently at an impasse. The GOP-controlled state Senate left Harrisburg earlier this week without providing a needed signature on the main budget bill, protesting Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro’s vow to veto a school voucher program he earlier supported.
Bradford said that negotiations over the universities, and the deadlocked budget generally, need a “reset.” The state House has no set return date.
A spokesperson for House Republicans referred back to comments House Minority Leader Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster) made on the chamber floor Thursday, calling for changes to the way state-related universities are governed.
“Our friends on the other side of the aisle simply say, ‘The status quo is good enough, let’s just fund it,’” Cutler said. “The truth is, you can fund it, and you can get reforms.”
Speaking to reporters, Bradford responded that Republicans should have sought those reforms in the more than a decade they controlled both legislative chambers.
The funding bill for the universities has failed twice in the past two weeks — first coming up 18, and then six votes shy of the 136 needed for a two-thirds majority in the chamber.
After the latest failure on Thursday, Democrats redoubled their efforts to swing GOP votes by offering Republican members funding for projects in their districts in exchange for support, state Rep. Aaron Bernstine (R., Lawrence) told Spotlight PA.
Bernstine said meetings occurred both Thursday and Friday, and that Penn State lobbyists were in the room for those conversations. Another GOP lawmaker confirmed that account.
“It is absolutely reprehensible that payoffs are being given for votes,” Bernstine said in a text message. “This represents the worst kind of politics and is the exact reason why the hard-working people of Pennsylvania don’t trust Harrisburg.”
Democratic leaders in the state House first moved standalone bills that would have provided roughly $170 million and $162 million respectively to Temple and Pitt, but both failed. A bill that would provide Lincoln with $16 million passed. Another that would have allocated money to Penn State was never brought up for a vote.
After these initial failures, state House leaders combined funding for all four universities into one bill. That also failed.
The legislation would provide a little over $640 million in aid for the commonwealth’s four state-related universities, a more than 7% increase from last year. This money has historically subsidized tuition for in-state students at the institutions.
This isn’t the first time money for these schools has turned into a political football.
The requirement that these appropriations get support from two-thirds of the state legislature makes it possible for members in the minority to throw their weight around to try to extract concessions from chamber leaders. That is what happened this year: A group of the House’s most conservative members opposed the university funding for reasons related to hot-button political talking points, while a group of more mainstream members also pushed for tuition freezes and increased transparency from the universities.
The most significant of those coalitions is the Pennsylvania Freedom Caucus, a group of conservative lawmakers self-styled after the congressional Freedom Caucus.
In 2021, before the caucus formally convened, many conservatives who went on to become members threatened to hold up funding for Penn Medicine because of the medical system’s COVID-19 vaccine requirement. And last year, the state budget was delayed partially over fetal tissue research at Pitt.
This session, Freedom Caucus Republicans like Bernstine claimed that Penn State Health and other medical centers work in conjunction with state-related universities to prescribe puberty blockers to children under the age of 10.
Penn State Health has said the medications Bernstine and other Freedom Caucus members are referencing are reserved for treating premature puberty in children under 10 and not gender dysphoria.
The Freedom Caucus only lists 16 members online, which isn’t enough to swing a two-thirds vote in the House. But Bernstine’s menu of concerns also included issues that were more palatable to his GOP colleagues outside his caucus.
“There are a significant number of issues with those state-related universities,” Bernstine told Spotlight PA. “The lack of transparency and them failing to be transparent through the Pennsylvania Right-To-Know Law. Additionally, the consistent increases in tuition from those universities is problematic for families and then the variety of other things that are happening such as the stifling of free speech.”
State Rep. Ryan Warner (R., Fayette), who is not listed as a member of the Freedom Caucus, also decried the universities’ exclusion from the commonwealth’s public records law.
“They are in fact de facto private universities,” he said on the state House floor Thursday. “How could anybody sit here and tell me we need to give these universities hundreds of millions of dollars yet we have no idea how they spend it?”
Throughout this year’s debate over the universities’ funding, Republicans have also broadly opposed boosting the amount of state money flowing to the universities because most of the schools have refused to commit to a complete tuition freeze.
State Rep. David Rowe (R., Union), a Freedom Caucus member, argued that state-related institutions refusing to freeze tuition while accepting an increase in funding isn’t fair to taxpayers.
“For several years now, the state-related institutions have been double-dipping on the taxpayers by raising tuition rates annually despite receiving hundreds of millions in taxpayer-funded subsidies,” Rowe said in a text message.
Democrats urged their counterparts to support the additional funding and argued the money would help lower tuition costs for students and alleviate student loan debt.
State Rep. Donna Bullock (D., Philadelphia), who chairs the Pennsylvania Legislative Black Caucus, repeated a famous speech from Temple’s founder Russell Conwell in her floor remarks.
“We have diamonds in our own backyard, right here in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” Bullock said, referring to college students in the state. “We are refusing to invest in those diamonds. We’re failing to invest in our children and our young people.”
The universities have been broadly reluctant to commit to any tuition freezes. Patrick Gallagher, chancellor of the University of Pittsburgh, told lawmakers during a state budget hearing that the university has to look “holistically at the budget.”
Lincoln University President Brenda Allen said during state budget hearings that her school must be able to adjust tuition because it’s the source of 70% of the institution’s budget. Still, a spokesperson for the school told Spotlight PA that since 2014, the university has committed to not hiking individual students’ tuition for four years of attendance.
Republicans said Lincoln was the only state-related university that fully committed to a tuition freeze this year if the school received increased funding (a spokesperson for Lincoln has not confirmed this to Spotlight PA). Because of this, Rowe and many other Republicans voted in favor of Lincoln’s appropriation when all the schools’ funding was considered separately.
Temple, Pitt, and Penn State are among the nation’s most expensive public universities for in-state students, according to U.S. News & World Report. Each state-related university raised tuition last year.
Pennsylvania, meanwhile, is among the least affordable states for higher education in the country, according to a 2016 study by the University of Pennsylvania.
Throughout the funding debate, Democrats reiterated that cutting state funding for the four state-related universities would only worsen Pennsylvania’s standing.
“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,” said state House Appropriations Chair Jordan Harris (D., Philadelphia). “You can’t say to our young people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps but then don’t give them the dang-on boots or the straps.”
Samuel O’Neal is an intern with the Pennsylvania Legislative Correspondents’ Association. Learn more about the program. Spotlight PA is funded by foundations and readers like you who are committed to accountability journalism that gets results.
Photo – Old Main is pictured on the Penn State University campus in State College, Pennsylvania.
Credit – TIM TAI / Philadelphia Inquirer