PA Senate authorizes university funding amid ongoing fiscal year dispute

PA Senate authorizes university funding amid ongoing fiscal year dispute

Pennsylvania’s Senate on Wednesday approved hundreds of millions of dollars for universities and schools, but it rejected some House priorities as lawmakers search for agreements on elements of a state budget that have dragged on five months into the fiscal year.

The Republican-controlled Senate passed a pair of budget-related bills, all with support from GOP and Democratic leaders, but both require House approval to get to the desk of Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro.

The bills have an uncertain future in the House because they lack the increases in aid that the chamber’s Democratic majority had sought for the poorest public schools and three major universities: Temple, Pitt and Penn State.

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A number of budget items have eluded agreement since House Democrats in June refused to go along with a budget plan supported by Shapiro and Senate Republicans. The sticking point was a new, $100 million program to pay for tuition at private and religious schools.

The resulting $45 billion budget that Shapiro signed in August doesn’t include the tuition voucher program, and — as a result — Republicans have held up elements that Democrats had supported.

In Wednesday’s floor debate, Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman, a Republican from Indiana County, acknowledged criticism that the legislation lacks extra school aid that Democrats had sought.

Rather, Pittman said it is important to focus on what the Senate was accomplishing in a bipartisan vote.

“I’m proud of the work this institution has put into this legislation,” Pittman said. “I’m proud of the work we are accomplishing on a bipartisan basis to move education in this commonwealth forward.”

The budget that Shapiro signed boosted aid for public school instruction and operations by $600 million, or about 7%. But it didn’t include the extra $100 million in “Level Up” funding Democrats wanted for the poorest public schools — or, for that matter, the billions of extra dollars that public school advocates say is necessary to adequately fund public schools.

The Senate’s bills that passed Wednesday marshal another $150 million — for a total of $555 million — for an educational tax credit program that largely subsidizes tuition at private schools.

The program is championed primarily by Republicans. Still, Republicans agreed to provisions sought by Democrats: scaling back the amount of money that middleman administrators keep and putting $48 million more toward schools that serve a large proportion of students from lower-income families.

The legislation also sends $603 million to five institutions, including an increase of about $3 million apiece for Lincoln University and Penn College of Technology. But the bill reflects a continued Republican refusal to increase subsidies for Temple, Pitt and Penn State.

Democrats had sought an increase of 7% for each institution, or $20 million total.

Republicans have insisted that the three universities not increase tuition, which each institution did for this school year. Without state aid, though, the universities say it is difficult to keep tuition flat.

Other provisions in the Senate’s bills allow $100 million in federal aid to flow to school mental health services and create a program to award up to $10,000 to student teachers in an effort to encourage more people to become educators.

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The stipends are aimed at easing a hardship for college students finishing up a teaching degree who each must student-teach in schools for 12 weeks without pay.

“We are running out of individuals to educate our children, no matter what school you may be in,” Sen. Vincent Hughes, a Democrat from Philadelphia, said during floor debate. “We are literally running out of teachers.”

Meanwhile, the Senate has not acted on a House bill that would deliver a $1 billion-plus hit to the state’s bank account by increasing subsidies for public transit agencies, cutting business taxes and expanding tax credits for child care costs and lower-earning workers.

In an interview, Pittman said he is “very intrigued” by the bill because it includes such a substantial tax cut. But, he said, his caucus has concerns about the legislation.

“And that’s what we have to evaluate,” Pittman said. “But we’re keeping all of our options open.”

  

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