HARRISBURG - With Gov. Corbett set to announce his budget proposal next week, a key state Senate committee chairman has raised eyebrows by taking the unusual step of canceling hearings on state funding for courts and colleges, including Pennsylvania State University.
Appropriations Chairman Jake Corman (R., Centre) said he opted not to hold the traditional February budget hearings for the state college system and so-called state-related schools such as Penn State because hearings were held last fall at locations across the state.
Corman said he canceled a scheduled Feb. 23 appearance by state judiciary officials before his committee for a different reason: to give the state's highest court more time to resolve controversy over legislative redistricting. Corman said he planned to reschedule that hearing.
The moves left Senate Democrats angry that Corman pulled the plug on hearings when budget cuts are anticipated and questions linger over Penn State's child sex-abuse scandal.
Budget hearings, long a fixture of Harrisburg's legislative calendar, are routinely scheduled in the weeks following a governor's delivery of a proposed fiscal-year budget message in early February. Cabinet secretaries who head various departments and agencies, along with colleges and other entities that receive state funding, make their cases for funding increases - or, as in more recent years, attempt to stave off cuts.
Penn State president Graham B. Spanier made a splash last year when he engaged in a public war of words with Corbett over deep cuts proposed to the state-related colleges' budget.
Spanier - fired in November after the filing of criminal charges against former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky and two other university officials - won that round to the extent that much of the school's funding was restored by the legislature.
Budget hearings, which generally run into March and are broadcast on Pennsylvania Cable Network, give the public a view of the process, and afford an opportunity for lawmakers to raise policy issues with top officials, often leading to revealing exchanges.
State Sen. Vincent Hughes, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, said the five hearings held in the fall do not count because they were conducted long before Corbett's budget speech, scheduled for Tuesday.
"We owe our institutions the opportunity to testify," said Hughes, who threatened to hold his own hearings if Corman does not.
Corman said he had not ruled out scheduling hearings for the colleges if "there is a significant change in funding."
"We toured the state last fall to get their funding picture and get information about what the consequences would be with more cuts," said Corman, in whose district Penn State's main campus is located. "I don't know that we'll hear anything new."
Chris Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College, said Corman's argument that he had already held hearings "has some validity."
But, Borick added, "given the dynamic and turbulent nature of the budget situation, I'd lean on the side of giving more time for public input."
The scandal at Penn State could give rise to any number of questions in budget hearings for the state-related universities, which also include Lincoln, Temple, and the University of Pittsburgh. For instance, Corbett has said he supports legislators' calls for ending those schools' exemption from the state Right to Know law, and would seek to tie state aid to greater openness on the part of the colleges' officials.
Those colleges were exempted from the 2008 law because they also receive private funding and did not want donor information released.
Hughes, in a testy letter to Corman regarding hearings on the judiciary's budget, said he feared the timing of the postponement of hearings created a public perception problem.
He said the public might suspect that the postponement was linked to the state Supreme Court's Jan. 25 ruling rejecting GOP-crafted legislative district maps.
"As committee chairmen we must be particularly sensitive to this concern for both of our [party] caucuses," Hughes said. "Unless your [postponement] decision resulted from a court-initiated request seeking more time to prepare for their hearing, your action appears inappropriate."
Corman said he was only postponing the judiciary hearings to allow the high court time to resolve the issue. The court is still preparing its written opinions in that decision.