HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Democrats who control Pennsylvania’s House of Representatives are making another attempt to send hundreds of millions of dollars to four Pennsylvania universities and get around a partisan dispute that has delayed the money.
To get around the opposition, House Democrats shifted the money into a grant program in legislation whose approval, they say, requires only a simple majority vote. They passed the legislation by a 115-88 vote late Wednesday, with Republicans calling the effort unconstitutional.
The funding was part of a flurry of tying up loose ends for the state’s $45 billion budget, which has dragged three months into the fiscal year without all of the elements of the spending plan in place.
House Republicans predicted that the GOP-controlled Senate may give the efforts a chilly reception. Democrats waved off those concerns.
The universities — Penn State, Temple, the University of Pittsburgh and Lincoln University — are in line to receive about $643 million total, an increase of about 7% from last year. The universities are not state-owned, but receive state subsidies.
Traditionally, the schools have received hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars annually to subsidize the tuition of in-state students. The lawmakers have typically given approval through a two-thirds majority vote to satisfy a requirement in the state constitution for direct appropriations to the institutions. However, the money has been held up this year by Republican lawmakers objecting to the institutions’ tuition increases.
Without state aid, though, the universities have said it is difficult to keep tuition flat. Since July, the universities have had to plug the gap, and have planned their budgets around the prospect the funding would come through eventually.
Beyond the universities, Democrats are attempting to tie up loose ends that have left about $1 billion worth of funding in legislative limbo. Legislation also passed by the chamber late Wednesday night would allow funding to flow to a number of Democratic priorities, including home repair subsidies, adult mental health services and subsidies for public defenders.
It increases funding for tax credit scholarships by $150 million, money typically embraced by Republicans as it allows students to use public funds to attend private school. But on Wednesday, they chafed at measures introduced that Democrats say increase transparency to the program.
Republicans were rankled by the Democrats’ proposals.
“We have yet another legislative goodie bag. We have budget implementation language wrapped in a few special interest giveaways with one-sided Democratic caucus priorities in a behemoth bill to carry legislation that otherwise would not pass,” said Minority Leader Rep. Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster.
But House Democratic leadership called it an “honest attempt” to address the gaps left in the budget system.
“Yes, this is unorthodox, but this is the reality of governing in uncharted territory,” said Majority Leader Matt Bradford, D-Montgomery.
The bills now go on to the state Senate, which is due back Oct. 16.
Brooke Schultz is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.