As we enter the third week of an impasse over funding the 2017-2018 Pennsylvania state budget, an astonishing possibility has come into view: the House Republicans, led by Speaker Mike and Turzai and Majority Leader Dave Reed, appear to be prepared to block funding for the four state-related universities – Penn State, University of Pittsburgh, Temple University and Lincoln University – rather than agree to the Governor’s demand that they raise $600 to $800 million in new recurring revenues.
Governor Wolf and the Republican-led legislature have apparently agreed to a number of one-time revenue measures to close the budget deficit – proposals like borrowing from other funds or selling licenses for new gaming sites – that only bring in revenues in one year. But the Republicans, particularly in the House, appear unwilling to agree to Governor Wolf’s insistence that the fiscal health of the commonwealth requires new recurring tax revenues that can be counted on to generate funds not just in one year, but year after year. We understand that the Governor has put forward a series of tax increases that mostly fall on businesses, including a severance tax on natural gas drilling, but Republican leaders, especially in the House, have said “no.”
And now, House Republican Majority Leader Reed is suggesting something that is deeply misguided. Capitolwire quoted him saying that “the budget’s non-preferred appropriations – for Pennsylvania’s state-related universities….which total roughly $600 million in spending, would not be approved for the time being, meaning the FY2017-18 spending plan, with all the code bills, represent a balanced budget, if the governor signs them or allows them to become law.”
Reed’s spokesperson, Stephen Miskin, is quoted saying something similar.
What that means is that Republicans appear to be ready to gut funding for our flagship state universities to avoid having to raise new, recurring tax revenues, including a bi-partisan proposal to create a severance tax on natural gas drilling.
It’s hard to tell whether this is a real threat. But it’s inconceivable that it would even be on the table. Not only does funding higher education provide opportunity for young Pennsylvanians – especially those from working class families – but it is also one of the best ways to generate long-term economic growth for the state. And we already underinvest in this area. Pennsylvanian is fourth from the bottom of all fifty states in per-student funding for higher education. A failure to provide funding for the state-related institutions would cut their budgets roughly 5-7%, creating turmoil on each campus. The result is likely to be program cuts and higher tuitions, which will block some low-income students from attending these colleges and increase already-high student loans for others.
Now is not the time for us to be decreasing funding for higher education. Quite the opposite. And the ideal way to fund higher education is with a proposal Governor Wolf and a bi-partisan coalition of Democrats and Republicans have been supporting – a severance tax on natural gas drilling. While we have this limited resource – and while gas production is increasing in the state – we need to be turning it into an unlimited resource – generations of Pennsylvanians who are highly educated. Nothing brings new jobs and higher wages faster than better-educated young people. Nothing helps insure that the next generation is even better educated than to increase access to higher education widely through the population.
It’s time to close out this budget with new recurring revenues – ideally a severance tax on natural gas drilling – that will allow us to fund our state-related institutions like Pitt, Penn State, Temple and Lincoln now, and will also help stabilize our state budget for years to come so we can invest even more in the future.