The budget stalemate in Pennsylvania isn’t about taxing gas extraction. That’s not going to happen this year.
It isn’t about getting the state out of the liquor business. The State Stores workers’ union is too strong.
Nor is it about weakening Gov. Wolf heading into next year’s election. That mission has been accomplished.
It’s about expanding legalized gambling to include video machines at social clubs and bars. And the state’s top institutions of higher learning have become part of the table stakes in the game.
That became clear when the legislature took its week-long Columbus Day recess without funding the four state-supported institutions of higher learning: Penn State, Pitt, Temple, and Lincoln. Without that cash, the schools may raise tuition.
Questioned about that possibility, key legislators all began singing the same song, saying that if only a gambling expansion bill were passed, the universities would have nothing to worry about.
House Majority Leader Dave Reed (R., Indiana) said the Senate, despite its leaders’ stated commitment, still hadn’t passed the House’s gambling bill. “That commitment’s only been out there for a year, year and a half, now,” he complained.
State Rep. Aaron Bernstine (R., Lawrence) said video poker machines could easily provide the money for higher education. State Rep. Todd Nesbit (R., Mercer) agreed. As did Democratic Reps. Bryan Barbin and Frank Burns of Cambria County, who warned that unless the universities are funded, “you are going to have 100,000 kids having a hard time staying in school.”
Penn State, including its agricultural extension service and College of Technology, expected $304 million from the state, 13 percent of its budget. Temple expected to receive $150 million, about 11 percent of its budget; and Pitt, $147 million, about 7 percent of its budget.
In the most jeopardy is Lincoln, which only expected about $14 million from the state — but that is 25 percent of its total operating budget. A Lincoln spokeswoman said “it would be hard to make up” for the loss of such a large percentage of funding.
Ending in-state discounts would hurt students. In-state tuition at Temple is about $15,700, compared with $26,000 for out-of-state students. At Pitt, tuition is $18,500 for in-state students, $29,750 for out-of-state students; Penn State, $17,400 in-state, $32,644 out-of-state; Lincoln, $11,000 in-state, $16,500 out-of-state.
Temple president Richard M. Englert pointed out the school’s $4.5 billion economic impact to the state. “As we see it, the commonwealth allocates $150 million to Temple University, and we use our resources to turn that into a multibillion return on investment,” he said.
Penn State president Eric J. Barron calculated that university’s economic impact at $17 billion. But those aren’t the numbers that gambling proponents are crunching. They say installing 40,000 video gaming terminals in liquor establishments could create up to $300 million in new revenue for the state.
They would rather hold funding for state universities hostage to expand gambling than make tough decisions on taxing and spending. That’s a bad bet that Pennsylvania shouldn’t take.