Penn Vet funding could fall victim to state budget

Political Notebook

Gov. Tom Wolf and Republican lawmakers have clashed on some key areas as the state budget deadline approaches this week — on new taxes, borrowing schemes and gambling revenue, to name a few.

But they seem to agree on at least one cost-cutting measure, even if it gets little attention: Neither Wolf’s nor House Republicans’ budget plan spends any money on Penn Vet, the state’s only veterinary school.

Funding for Penn Vet, formally called the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, isn’t a front-page issue. But if the final budget deal cuts its state funding from $30 million to zero, it could have a serious impact on efforts to combat animal disease, said Pennsylvania Farm Bureau Media and Strategic Communications Director Mark O’Neill.

“There is a real concern that, as this moves forward, it could potentially be flatlined. I mean completely cut out,” O’Neill said Friday.

As a private college, the University of Pennsylvania doesn’t rely on state funds the way public or semi-public schools like Penn State University and the University of Pittsburgh do. Nevertheless, the millions of dollars it gets from the state help cover services that directly benefit Pennsylvania’s farmers and consumers, O’Neill argued.

There’s a fear among animal experts and farmers that, without that funding, the school will pull back its public health efforts. Agriculture groups and the university itself have tasked their Harrisburg lobbyists with a push for continued funding, but time is running out.

Penn Vet carries out field tests and studies to identify and track animal disease, O’Neill said. Experts track pig disease on 547 farms, test tens of thousands of birds annually for influenza and even perform drug tests on racehorses, according to data provided by the school.

“The main concern is going to be: If funds are eliminated, why would the university focus on all these things specific to Pennsylvania when it’s not getting money to do that?” O’Neill said.

The school also trains veterinarians who specialize in large animals — an increasingly uncommon and aging group in a state that relies heavily on agriculture.

Lawmakers are grappling with a $1.5 billion funding gap, and both sides have proposed cuts. But the means to close the gap have yet to be decided, with Republicans in both chambers disagreeing with Wolf’s plans to raise new funds.

In the meantime, Penn Vet funding remains a seemingly minor issue compared with the massive sums under debate.

Shuster air plan faces new challenge

A year after Rep. Bill Shuster’s first effort to privatize the nation’s air traffic control network faltered, the 9th District Republican may be struck with a sense of deja vu.

Shuster revealed his sweeping bill — the 21st Century AIRR Act — on Thursday, weeks after President Donald Trump spoke in its support. But for the second year in a row, senators quickly unveiled a competing plan that doesn’t privatize air traffic control.

Both bills cover a range of issues, with Shuster’s authorizing funds for the Federal Aviation Administration to operate for the next six years. But the highlight of the Shuster bill is its plan to create a new nonprofit corporation — controlled in part by commercial airlines — that would operate air traffic control across the country.

“We have the busiest aviation system in the world, and though it’s safe, it’s also inefficient, costly and unable to keep up with growing demand or developing technology,” Shuster said in a statement announcing his bill.

Shuster has proudly pushed the change, which he says would save money and allow for up-to-date technology at airports. But some airlines and consumer groups oppose the privatization scheme.

The division became clear last week, when senators from both parties backed their own version that leaves air traffic control in government hands. Some outside groups like the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association quickly signed on to the Senate version.

A similar disagreement scuttled Shuster’s plans a year ago, leaving lawmakers to settle for a short-term extension before trying again this year. They’ll likely find out soon whether Trump’s support makes the difference: The deadline to pass a bill is Sept. 30.

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.