Did governor twist arms for tuition-freeze promise?

HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) – In a move that should make parents of college students very happy, state universities agreed to freeze tuition next year.

But the deal comes with strings attached, and left many folks disillusioned with Governor Tom Wolf’s tactics in securing the deal.

On Thursday morning, after an often heated debate, the State System of Higher Education Board of Governors voted 9-8 to freeze tuition in return for an extra $45.3 million that the governor proposed in his budget. It was Representative Mike Hanna’s (D-Clinton/Centre) resolution.

“If we can secure additional state dollars to make public education more affordable without putting it on the back of students through tuition increases that’s what our job should be,” Hanna said after the vote.

Many schools worry that they are now on the hook to freeze their tuition whether or not lawmakers actually deliver the cash in the budget, which is due June 30.

“People are going to hear we are going to freeze tuition if we get the $45.3 million, but they stop listening after they hear us say we will freeze tuition,” said PSSHE spokesman Kenn Marshall.

Others were angry at a Wednesday afternoon visit to the Board of Governor’s meeting by Wolf’s envoy, John Hanger. He forcefully pushed for the tuition freeze resolution and insisted schools commit now if they wanted Wolf’s continued support in the future. Some in the room took it as a threat and were still off-put Thursday.

“I didn’t like the tenor yesterday,” said board member Johnathon Mack. “I felt like a gun was held to our head.”

Representative Matt Baker (R-Potter/Tioga/Bradford) voted for the tuition-freeze resolution but publicly objected to Wolf’s tactics.

“To put board members in a position of acting on something, or an ultimatum, I just think is not the appropriate way to go. Nobody likes ultimatums. I don’t think you like ultimatums. I don’t like ultimatums,” Baker said.

But the governor, who got the tuition freeze promise that he sought, is making no apologies.

“This was an action we wanted to be taken on behalf of families in Pennsylvania,” said Wolf spokesman Jeffrey Sheridan.

In reality, Wolf can promise more money for state schools but he can’t deliver. Budget bills begin in the legislature and must be passed by both chambers before reaching a governor.

But symbolically and politically Wolf has scored a victory. He can tell voters that he has secured a tuition freeze guarantee from the 14 state-owned universities. If the General Assembly refuses to deliver the money Wolf promised, the governor can blame lawmakers for reneging on the deal and failing to hold the line on tuition.

“Now we ask the legislature to step up and pass the governor’s budget proposal that includes this proposed increase,” Sheridan said.

If approved, $45.3 million would be PASSHE’s first funding increase in seven years and its largest hike ever.

The Board of Governors wants more money and has historically done its best to keep tuition low. But the buzz as they left Harrisburg was about the governor’s arm twisting. Wolf definitely ruffled feathers for a resolution that doesn’t have the weight of law.

“It is non-binding,” said Baker. “It’s not a legal document. If it’s not a legal document, what the purpose of all this other than politics?”

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