Pa. House passes bill tying funding for Pitt, state-related universities to fetal tissue research

The bill, which now heads to the Senate, faces a likely veto by Gov. Tom Wolf

By: - July 6, 2022 9:15 pm

House Appropriations Chairman Stan Saylor, R-York, speaks at a budget hearing on Feb. 22, 2021. (Pa. House screenshot)

House Republicans on Wednesday passed long-considered legislation to cut off state funding for the University of Pittsburgh and other state-related universities if they engage in research on fetal tissue from elective abortions. 

The language, grafted onto a bill about rural broadband service to skirt a requirement for a two-thirds majority vote on funding for non-governmental organizations, must still be approved by the Senate before it reaches Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk. 

The bill, which passed the House with a 109-91 vote, is likely to be vetoed.

A separate bill on agricultural research was amended to include funding for Pitt, Penn State, Temple, and Lincoln universities and passed 145-55.

Pitt’s funding has been in the crosshairs of conservative lawmakers since 2019 when the Trump administration announced a policy to end federal government funding for fetal tissue research. 

House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, said during that year’s budget discussions that preventing state money from going toward such research might be necessary to garner support for Pitt’s funding.

The issue emerged again this year. And House members voted 108-92 last month to amend the state-related university appropriations bill to bar the research. With a two-thirds majority vote required for non-preferred appropriations, Republican leaders knew they would not have the votes to pass the ban.

The language requires the universities’ administrators to swear under oath that they do not “engage in research or experimentation using fetal tissue obtained from an elective abortion” to receive the money.

Democrats objected, saying the state funding is used exclusively to provide Pennsylvania students with tuition discounts and warned that the legislation could upend thousands of students’ educations. 

On Wednesday, the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. Matt Bradford, of Montgomery County, blamed the fetal tissue research rider for holding up the budget, which was due June 30. 

“We should have been done a week ago, but we’re not,” Bradford said. “I would think the abortion politics inserted into a budget debate is a mistake.”

Bradford declined to talk about discussions with Republican leaders on the subject but said he doesn’t see the procedural maneuver as a compromise.

“I don’t think there’s any compromise on an issue like this. We need to fund our universities,” Bradford said.

House Appropriations Chairperson Stan Saylor, R-York, said the move was necessary to advance both the state-related university funding appropriation and the fetal tissue research ban.

“That is the way it goes around here sometimes,” Saylor said.

Saylor would not speculate whether the research ban will pass the Senate, or get Wolf’s signature. Wolf’s spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. 

Saylor’s spokesperson Neal Lesher said additional conditions on tuition funding for the state-related universities would be announced with the roll-out of the fiscal code bill, which dictates how each department can spend its funding.

They may include academic performance metrics, language restricting the funding to tuition assistance, and a requirement that the universities disclose the value of tuition discounts to students. 

“There are still some wins for our members and they get to speak as to the fetal tissue issue with a floor vote in the house,” Lesher said.

Other sticking points in the budget process have included Wolf’s push to increase basic education funding by $1.2 billion, a cut to the corporate net income tax, and aid for working families in the form of a state-earned income tax credit, Marc Stier, director of the Pennsylvania Budget Policy Center, said.

“That seems to be the main sticking point, how much they’re going to do for corporations and how much they’re going to do for families,” Stier said.

Stier and another person familiar with the education funding debate said the final number is likely to just exceed $1 billion in new funding for basic education, special education, and the Level Up program, which funnels additional money to the state’s poorest districts. The amount would also include $100 million each in one-time grants for school safety and mental health care in schools. 

Lawmakers have also not revealed how they will distribute $2 billion in federal pandemic relief funding. 

“We don’t know whether any of that is going to be in the budget,” Stier said. “We’re at the stage where they’re really quiet. That’s how we know they’re getting serious. No one wants to risk blowing up a deal.”

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Peter Hall
Peter Hall

Peter Hall has been a journalist in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for more than 20 years, most recently covering criminal justice and legal affairs for The Morning Call in Allentown. His career at local newspapers and legal business publications has taken him from school board meetings to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and many points of interest between. He earned a degree in journalism from Susquehanna University.