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Pennsylvania Republicans reconsider funding Pitt for fetal tissue research and academic voucher program


As lawmakers determine Pennsylvania’s 2022-23 budget, some Republicans are reconsidering their support for public funding of the University of Pittsburgh.

The university has drawn fire from Republican representatives for its fetal tissue research and what they call a lack of transparency in the use of public funds.

Anti-abortion activists, including local and national Republicans, allege that Pitt participated in illegal and unethical activities while university researchers conducted fetal tissue research with aborted fetuses obtained through the UPMC.

Simultaneously, some local Republicans, led by Hempfield State Rep. Eric Nelson, aim to change how Pennsylvania distributes funds to students in the state.

Nelson supports a college voucher program, which would provide funds directly to all in-state students at Pennsylvania universities, colleges, and technical schools.

Currently, Pitt and four other state-affiliated universities receive state funding annually through non-preferred appropriation bills passed in the state budget. A significant portion of this money goes to general support funding for these universities, which the schools then use to save on in-state student tuition.

The college voucher program would redirect more than $580 million that goes to Pitt, Penn State and Temple University, Nelson said.

State Rep. Matt Dowling, a Republican representing parts of Somerset and Fayette counties, voted against Pitt’s 2021 unpreferred appropriations bill because of fetal tissue research. He plans to vote against Pitt’s funding again and supports the college voucher program.

“If (Pitt) isn’t going to (stop fetal tissue research), I’d rather fund the student than fund the university,” Dowling said.

Governor Tom Wolf’s Executive Budget Proposal for 2022-23 recommends a 5% increase in funding for higher education institutions. It would be the first funding increase for state-linked universities since 2019.

If Wolf’s budget is approved, Pitt would receive more than $159 million in general support funding.

Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher recently sent a letter to the Pitt community warning students in the state that their tuition cut was in jeopardy.

“Some House Republicans … are using unrelated issues as political bargaining chips to justify a failure to support Pitt’s students,” Gallagher wrote. “As a result, passage of the appropriations bill is at risk and more than 21,000 Pitt students and their families could lose this much-needed tuition support.”

The letter did not specifically address the academic voucher program or fetal tissue research.

In a statement, House Republican Caucus spokesman Jason Gottesman said Gallagher’s claim “is not substantiated.” Gottesman said the budget process is still in its infancy.

“Discussions continue on funding for all education needs, and the final decision on any expenditures will be made by caucus and then by the full body,” Gottesman said via email. “Keep in mind: Any decision on whether or not to continue in-state tuition reductions is made by the University of Pittsburgh, not the General Assembly.”

Pitt’s unfavorite appropriations bill – which needs two-thirds support of the General Assembly to pass – is currently receiving bipartisan support from state senators, including Majority Leader Kim Ward, a Republican of Hempfield.

The Legislative Assembly must pass the 2022-23 budget by June 30.

For nearly 60 years, Pennsylvania has provided funds to state-related schools to provide in-state savings.

Compared to other states, Pennsylvania tuition is more expensive. Tuition in Keystone State averages $14,812, while the national average was $9,212 in 2021.

Only two states – New Hampshire and Vermont – have more expensive tuition than Pennsylvania.

Pitt’s undergraduate tuition is $19,092. Gallagher said a Pitt State student saves about $15,000 in tuition each year.

However, Nelson wondered if all of these savings came from the state or if some of the money was matched by Pitt. As a state-affiliated school, Pitt is not subject to the right to know law, which means the public does not have access to its financial records.

There is, however, precedent for a state-tied university to match the tuition savings. Penn State said the general support funding it receives through the state budget amounts to approximately $5,400 in savings per student in the state each year.

Penn State is more than doubling that amount, giving every student in the state a tuition discount of about $13,300, starting in 2021.

Under Nelson’s plan, Pennsylvanians who attend a university, college or technical school in the state would receive $8,000 per year if their household income is less than $100,000 and $4,000 per year if the income of their household is less than $250,000.

Nelson said he believes taxpayer dollars should go directly to student taxpayers and their families, not universities.

“I’m not against universities, I’m for families and students,” Nelson said. “Why shouldn’t the student be the one who receives the funding directly?” »

Dowling takes issue with the fact that state money supports Pitt as long as the university conducts fetal tissue research.

The fetal tissue controversy stems from research Pitt published in 2020 on transplanting fetal organs into lab mice. In December, an independent law firm assessed Pitt’s research and found it “fully compliant with applicable law”, although critics say the firm’s assessment is clouded by conflicts of interest and an incomplete examination.

The general support funding Pitt receives to save on tuition does not pay for research. Dowling has acknowledged this, but he still disputes that Pitt receives support from Pennsylvania.

“Money in my right pocket and money in my left pocket spend the same because they go into the same person’s pockets,” Dowling said. “I think it’s important to remember, for those of us who are adamantly pro-life, that these institutions are doing research that we simply cannot tolerate as a Commonwealth.”

Maddie Aiken is editor of Tribune-Review. You can contact Maddie by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .