Pa. lawmakers threaten university funding over statute of limitations deadlock

Tribune-Review [Pittsburgh PA]

June 18, 2021

By Deb Erdley

A pair of state lawmakers who sponsored a bill to give adult survivors of child sexual abuse the right to sue their assailants beyond the statute of limitations say they will block state appropriations for Pennsylvania’s public research universities if Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward continues to stall a vote on their bill.

State Reps. Jim Gregory, R-Blair County, and Mark Rozzi, D-Berks, say they’ve assembled a coalition of lawmakers from diverse sectors who are willing to block funding to Pitt, Penn State, Temple and Lincoln universities unless Ward, a Hempfield Republican, moves the bill to a vote.

The quasi-public universities receive more than a half billion dollars each year in state subsidies, which is used to reduce tuition for Pennsylvania residents.

The years-long move to open the courts to claims that fall outside the statute of limitations gained momentum after the release of a 2018 statewide grand jury report detailing hundreds of allegations of child sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests over a period of seven decades.

Rozzi, who shared his searing tale of assault at the hands of a priest years ago, said the Senate has the votes to pass the bill the House approved 152-49 in April. Both Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, and Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Forest Hills, have gone on record in support of the measure.

“It would probably pass the Senate with 40 votes,” Costa said Friday.

Ward said she fears the bill would not pass constitutional muster. She stood firm in her refusal to bring the bill to a vote last month despite emotional pleas from families touched by clergy child sexual abuse.

Reached Friday, she said she wasn’t aware of any threat to university funding and gave no indication she is considering a change of heart about the so-called window of opportunity bill. She would say only that she was working with the House to resolve “other issues” surrounding the budget.

The threat to hold university funds hostage is the most recent in a series of issues related to this year’s budget negotiations. Many thought passing a budget would be simple this year, given the rare $10.3 billion budget surplus the state is posting after years of shortfalls.

They were wrong.

Everything from funding for public schools, universities, infrastructure, aid to sectors still suffering losses from the pandemic and a scholarship fund for state university system students has come up as lawmakers negotiate the final details of a spending plan before the end of the fiscal year on June 30.

Even so, Costa and Ward predicted the General Assembly will pass a budget next week.

Gregory and Rozzi, both adult survivors of child sexual abuse, say the clock is ticking.

The pair said they have assembled a coalition of lawmakers prepared to block the two-thirds majority House vote needed to pass state funding for the state-related research schools. The coalition, they say, represents an assembly of strange bedfellows: pro-life advocates who question Pitt’s involvement in fetal tissue research; others who question whether Pitt is making adequate investments in the region; lawmakers who represent communities facing job losses as the 14 state-owned universities face dramatic downsizing; and those committed to the window of opportunity legislation.

Whether they can keep that coalition intact during the budget negotiations is questionable.

State Rep. Eric Nelson, R-Hempfield, said he is leading talks with Pitt for the Southwestern Pennsylvania delegation and believes they are close to reaching an agreement on the university’s role with surrounding counties. A Pitt spokesman said the university is always engaged with lawmakers to advance its mission of “supporting Pennsylvania students and driving economic growth across the region.”

Nonetheless, Rozzi and Gregory are determined to push their case.

“I will do what I have to do to move that bill forward,” Gregory said.

In the last two years, two attempts to do that failed. A move to change the law in late 2018 failed when former Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati blocked a vote in the Senate; a second move to change the state constitution failed earlier this year when the Secretary of State failed to meet a deadline to advertise the referendum that was scheduled to go on the May 18 primary ballot.

Rozzi said next week could be different.

“We’re going to send a message that a few people at the top can’t block this,” he said.