By Kevin Zwick, Capitolwire
A top aide to Gov. Tom Wolf has warned Penn State Trustees to lobby for the governor’s tax package or face funding cuts.
Without Wolf’s tax increase package, the budget will be balanced with “massive cuts” that will “harm PSU among many others,” said John Hanger, Secretary of Policy and Planning, in emails obtained by Capitolwire.
In one of the emails, sent the morning of Wolf’s second budget address, Hanger said Penn State President Eric Barron told Trustees the university will lobby for its appropriation but not for the revenue package to avoid taking a partisan stance.
But Hanger said Barron’s “logic is erroneous.” Barron’s position is “more partisan,” Hanger argues, because it props up the position of conservative Republicans who don’t want new taxes, as opposed to the governor, legislative Democrats and a small group of Republicans who supported a “framework” agreement that included increased revenues.
“More troublingly, the PSU position of refusing to lobby for new revenues also makes it more likely the budget will be balanced by massive cuts that will harm PSU among many others,” Hanger wrote in the lengthy email.
“The Governor continues to fight for balancing the budget and funding education,” Hanger wrote. “He will propose a revenue package that will achieve these goals. If the revenue package does not win support in the General Assembly, then massive cuts will take place. “That result is opposed by the Governor. But every Pennsylvanian must decide which road we will not take.”
David Han, the university’s academic trustee, told Hanger he believed it was “inappropriate and inaccurate to label Penn State as an enabler of a partisan position of no-new-revenues.”
“I cannot support your position that Penn State’s refusal to support new revenues is partisan,” Han wrote. “While individuals can and should exercise their First Amendment right to petition the government, it is in my opinion inappropriate to suggest that the University should enter into a similar role.”
Hanger responded: “To be clear, PSU lobbies and when it does it inevitably takes sides. It is for an appropriation that others oppose it. It is against something that others favor. I can give you many examples if you would like. If your argument is that PSU should not take sides in the General Assembly, then it best stop lobbying and perhaps close or reduce the government relations office.
“Having said that, I am not surprised by the selective application of the do-not-take-sides position. Just know that the budget will be balanced by cuts or revenues,” Hanger continued. “If there is not enough support for revenues, then the trustees should not be surprised by massive cuts to education, including PSU. I certainly am working to achieve something other than that outcome.”
When Han asked for examples, Hanger on Feb. 11 said he was lobbied the prior day by PSU and others on behalf of House Bill 1589, a bill opposed by Wolf that would provide funding for various agriculture programs. He also pointed to Senate Bill 912, the university’s Fiscal Year 2015-16 appropriation, that was a largely party-line House vote that the governor and Democrats “viewed as an unpaid for piece of legislation…”
“PSU takes sides all the time,” Hanger continued. “And to be clear it has a right to do so. And it has a duty to do so in some cases. But please don’t say that PSU cannot support revenues needed to pay for appropriations because to do so would violate PSU’s supposed responsibility not to take sides.”
In response to the exchange, Lawrence Lokman, a university spokesman, said Barron stated the university’s position, “which is that Penn State’s history and that of all of the state-related universities is to be non-partisan and to advocate for education, and higher education in particular.”
“We are pleased that the Governor continues to acknowledge the importance of investing in Penn State,” Lokman said. “Our focus, however, remains on coping with the lingering current year budget stalemate, and to that end we are urging all parties to complete their work on the 2015-2016 Commonwealth budget. The bottom line is that state support is an essential investment in student opportunity and success, and economic growth and development. We must find a resolution to the current impasse.”
When asked for comment, Wolf’s office didn’t specifically address Hanger’s exchange with the board, but reiterated the governor’s call for more revenue.
“In order to turn the page of across the board cuts that have a devastating effect on our colleges, universities and students, we need sustainable revenue and not one-time fixes,” said Mark Nicastre, Wolf’s communications director, via email. “Investing in higher education is important to Governor Wolf, but if the math does not add up, institutions of higher learning will not only miss out on additional funding increases, but they will likely again face massive cuts. This is why we need an honest, balanced budget that funds our schools.”
Wolf proposed several taxes and tax hikes to produce a total of $2.72 billion in recurring revenue, with a nearly $1.4 billion increase in the Personal Income Tax, which would raise the current 3.07 percent rate to 3.4 percent. He also proposed expanding the Sales and Use Tax to apply to some currently exempted items, expected to generate $414 million. Cigarettes and other tobacco products are also tapped for more cash by the governor.
Jenn Kocher, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, a Republican who represents Penn State and surrounding areas, criticized Hanger’s “strong-arm” approach.
“This position by the administration, it’s certainly been their tactic to attack and manipulate people into doing what they want,” she said. “They aren’t getting support for their positions on the merits so they’re resorting to bullying for that support.”
“This administration has been about intimidation and Secretary Hanger in particular loves to throw his weight around,” she added.