Pa. gov’s deep higher-ed cuts draw protests

"It's a matter of fairness that these drillers pay," said Rep. Greg Vitali.

Pennsylvania’s new Republican governor is under fire for proposing the nation’s biggest cuts in higher education–more than 50 percent for some universities–while refusing to tax the gas drilling that is fast becoming one of the state’s largest industries.

Some critics of Gov. Tom Corbett are frustrated that he won’t tap such a rich source of tax revenue when the state is looking at a projected deficit next year of $4 billion.

“This is the most irrational public policy I’ve ever seen in my life,” Democratic state Sen. Daylin Leach said Thursday. “He’s supposed to be fighting for Pennsylvania. He’s saying that Pennsylvania can’t have this money.”

Corbett has long opposed any tax on the gas extracted from the rich deposit known as the Marcellus Shale, and he repeated that stand Tuesday in the same speech in which he outlined the cuts in education. He said a tax would hinder the growth of natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania and prevent the state from becoming the national hub of the industry.

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“Let’s make Pennsylvania the Texas of the natural gas boom,” he urged lawmakers. “I’m determined that Pennsylvania not lose this moment. We have the chance to get it right the first time, the chance to grow our way out of the hard days.”

Corbett contends the industry has already plowed billions of dollars into the state, spawned economic booms in some of Pennsylvania’s most depressed areas and generated new revenue from the income, sales and other existing taxes. Pennsylvania is the largest gas-producing state without a gas extraction tax.

In the $27.3 billion budget he presented to lawmakers, Corbett proposed slashing spending on higher education by $644 million, including a more than 50 percent reduction for the 18 state-supported universities and colleges, which include Penn State, Pittsburgh and Temple. He also proposed a $1 billion cut for Pennsylvania’s public schools.

“Despite state subsidies over the past decades, tuition has continued to increase,” the governor said. “If the intent was to keep tuition rates down, it failed. We need to find a new model.”

Students, faculty members and administrators are mobilizing to convince lawmakers, many of whom are on their side, that the cuts are unreasonable.

What effect the cuts would have on the campuses remains unclear, although tuition increases are likely and the closing of some of Penn State’s 24 satellite campuses is possible, officials said. Penn State has 87,000 students all together.

“Everything is on the table,” said Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers.

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Molly Stieber, 21, president of the University of Pittsburgh’s student government, said she expected Corbett would call for modest cuts for higher education because of the state’s financial problems, but nothing as radical as he proposed.

“I was completely blindsided. … Fifty percent was just unprecedented and scary,” said Stieber, 21, a junior from Lancaster who is majoring in political science.

Stieber and her Penn State counterpart, Christian Ragland, are urging students and parents to contact their legislators. Plans for protest rallies and a day of student lobbying at the Capitol are in the works, they said.

“Now we’re in aggressive mode,” said Ragland, 22, a senior from New Jersey majoring in political science.

Corbett, who received nearly $1 million in campaign contributions from donors connected to the gas drilling industry, ran on a pledge not to increase any state taxes or fees. Republicans control both houses of the Legislature, giving Corbett a strong advantage in the budget negotiations that will take place in the coming weeks.

Democratic former Gov. Ed Rendell and leaders of the Senate GOP majority sought to negotiate a compromise on a drilling tax last fall, but the effort failed. Some Democrats are renewing the push this year.

“It’s a matter of fairness that these drillers pay,” said Rep. Greg Vitali. He said annual revenue from his bill would amount to $200 million this coming year and rise to $430 million by 2015-16.

David Masur, director of the lobbying group PennEnvironment, said a tax would have “zero political fallout,” since it would be paid not by ordinary Pennsylvanians but by the drilling companies.

“Where are they going to go?”” he asked. “The gas isn’t going anywhere.”

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