State budget approved

Clarion, Pa.- After nearly 270 days without a budget, Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education schools will be granted a supplemental budget that includes an additional $20.6 million, a 5 percent increase from the 2014-2015 budget. The 2015-2016 Commonwealth Budget was approved without the governor’s signature and became law on Monday, March 28 and will leave Illinois as the only state still without a budget for the 2015-2016 fiscal year.

Senior Paul Fischione reads the Oil City Derrick after the state government passed its 2015-2016 budget.
Senior Paul Fischione reads the Oil City Derrick after the state government passed its 2015-2016 budget.

In addition to allowing the Pennsylvania state budget to pass without his signature, Gov. Wolf vetoed correlating legislation in the fiscal code. The fiscal code is a 101-document that summarizes a variety of items to implement the state budget. Wolf claimed that elements within the code divided money for schools, borrows $2.5 billion, affects greenhouse gas emissions at power plants and regulates oil gas drilling. Despite this veto, higher education funding should not be affected.

State system schools will receive the first increase they have seen since 2008-2009, combined with the $412.7 million that was included in the budget passed on December 29, 2015. The state’s total appropriation will be $433.3 million.

Clarion University President Dr. Karen Whitney addressed the approval of the budget in an email addressed to students and faculty, stating how the $1 million in supplemental funds that Clarion will be receiving will help close the gap between spending and revenues.

Dr. Whitney elaborated how Clarion’s budget gap was created through several years of spending more than what the university had as income and that although the additional $1 million that the state is funding to Clarion will reduce the gap, it will not eliminate it.

“Our projected budget gap is $5.5 million,” stated Dr. Whitney, “and contributes to everything we do in terms of forcing us to prioritize the things that we do and too often only fund the highest priorities. We are not able to fund as much as we want to do on behalf of the students and employees to advance the university.”

Clarion University is currently undergoing a three-year plan (2015-2018) to completely balance the budget gap. Currently, the university receives around $100 million through its annual operating budget, but still is unable to provide certain amenities and opportunities that Dr. Whitney, personally, would like to offer to students.

Dr. Whitney along with university deans and department directors, have been working together to combat the budget deficit and make decisions to help reduce spending. “It is always our first approach,” stated Whitney, “to make sure that it has the least effect on students and as students, and you wouldn’t know it immediately. Even if it’s down to how often the grass is being cut or how often the trash gets picked up or how often the rest rooms in the library get cleaned.”

“It is not desirable, and the budget became extremely distressed in 2011 when the previous governor reduced state funding by 22 percent,” added Whitney. Budget issues have predated current students at Clarion and yet continue to have a continuous effect. “We have not recovered from the state’s defunding in 2011,” added Dr. Whitney.

“We have struggled.”

Gov. Wolf’s 2015-2016 state budget will increase higher education funding by 5 percent, and suggested another 5 percent increase for the 2016-2017 fiscal year. Overall, the 2015-2016 operating budget will be allocating 21.16 percent of its overall budget to education.

Although the passing of the state budget bears good news, the time lapse between the approval and distribution of state funds contributed to several worries and concerns for the approval of the 2016-2017 fiscal year budget. “The question is to what extent does the state budget affect college students,” said Dr.Whitney. “And my biggest concern for college students is that the state didn’t fund fall grants until late February.”

“We worked very hard to not have the state budget problem adversely affect our working college students,” added Dr. Whitney. “I hope the legislative and government are all taking stock of what they put the commonwealth through and are going to move forward and learn from it.”

She hopes that the added $1 million from the state will go beyond reducing the budget gap, but continue through the years to help fix a financial problem for higher education that has long been causing a strain between the partnership between the state and state schools.

“We don’t deserve just a 5 percent increase, we deserve a 35 percent increase,” said Dr. Whitney. “As of right now, our students pay 76 percent of the university’s operating cost while the state pays 24 percent. In my opinion,” she concluded, “the state should be paying 66 percent while the students pay 33 percent. Over time it’s clear that people with college degrees will earn more money over a lifetime, become better citizens and makes for a better state. I applaud what the state has done, but I feel this relationship, with the students paying 33 percent and state paying 66 percent, should be the end goal.”

“As a university we are doing our job,” said Dr. Whitney, “I just ask that the state continues to do theirs.”

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