Now that much of the real work is done and the generic shape of the budget is coming into focus, one thing jumps out at me: Pennsylvania higher education, and Penn State in particular, owes a tremendous debt to Sen. Jake Corman.
Let’s rewind the tape to mid March of this year. The day before the governor’s budget was announced, rumor has it that the university presidents were tipped off that the cuts would be staggering, but that this was merely the beginning of a negotiation. The governor was setting his priorities and would force the legislature to barter for their priorities – all under a hard cap.
At the time – again, according to multiple sources but none I would take to court – the final cut number was already a part of back room discussions and would be closer to 20-25%, not 50%. I said as much in an interview at the time, in part because it seemed likely then that the governor set the cut at such a level to force the very bartering he got.
But the issue was complicated by the response of some of the higher education community, Penn State in particular. Over the next few weeks the governor hammered Penn State and Penn State fought back. The back and forth made it seem possible – perhaps plausible – that Penn State would take a deeper cut than anticipated, in large part because public sentiment was never with them to begin with and turned even more negative the more Penn State fought.
Which is why the job Sen. Corman did is so very, very remarkable. On one hand it is true that no budget is going to the governor without the approval of Jake’s committee. But on the other it also true that he had to – eventually – pass something the governor would sign.
Consider what he was facing, and then assess his performance: a public sentiment that was squarely more in favor of cutting higher education than basic education or DPW’s services; a governor in no way inclined to disagree; and a constituent that seemed bent on making his job tougher.
Under the circumstances a cut of 25% would have been a good day’s work. Getting it down to 19%? Remarkable. And while his first motivation was likely to help his constituents – the University’s employees and the 40,000 students – the effect of dropping the across the board cut to higher education by 31 points generally will (obviously) dramatically impact all of the state higher education budgets.
Consider what it means in real numbers: the SSHE schools alone will see over $130M restored; Penn State – which has already come up with $50M in savings through salary freezes and other uncommitted funds – now only needs to fill a $12M hole, something the announced tuition increase almost certainly fills (assuming 24,000 in state students and a 4% increase); and across the Commonwealth some 250,000 students will still have the vast majority of their state support available come fall – along with the certainty of what funds will be available at all, unlike last year’s debacle.
Yes, there are cuts, freezes, and changes. But – bluntly – what did we expect? The cost of our government’s habitual excess is now coming home to roost and we are seeing the economic reality in budgets that reflect real declines in revenue.
Higher education, lampooned in bad economic times because of its choice nuggets of frivolity subsidized by taxpayers (seriously, a class on gender roles in TV?), is easily painted with the brush of bloated excess. That characterization is then re-enforced by the reports of professor and administrator salaries that all command over double the median income. The total picture of higher education makes its state funding a ripe target for cuts when most of the budget can’t be touched (entitlements are what they are) and when the other areas you can cut have a much more sympathetic public persona.
Against that backdrop, it’s not hard to see why the governor – who campaigned on fiscal restraint, drastic budget cuts, and no new taxes (and apparently meant what he said) – chose to slash higher education as opposed to DPW. From the political standpoint and as a negotiating posture, it was an astute move. And as the days and weeks that followed wore on, the governor appeared to become more and more inclined to leave the cuts much deeper than the expected 20-25%, goaded in part by the reaction of higher education and in part by a genuine need to find places to cut.
Which is why, given the size of the budget hole, the general political unattractiveness of the cause, and the executive branch’s stated preferences, I keep coming back to the same thought when I see that 19% number:
Jake Corman did one hell of a job for higher education.
Photo by Joe Shlabotnik
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