With more than $30 million on the line, Dr. Joan Hendricks aims to share with state lawmakers just what the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine means to the commonwealth and its No. 1 industry — agriculture.
The dean will make several trips to Harrisburg during the next few weeks for face time with legislators. On her agenda is Gov. Tom Wolf's proposal to cut $30.1 million in subsidies to the school from the state's fiscal year 2017-2018 budget, a $32.3 billion overall spending plan.
Wolf's plan zeros out support to Penn's veterinary school, a line item within the Department of Agriculture's budget. At the same time, Wolf suggests giving a $2.2 million boost to the agriculture department's general operations fund and offers level funding to many other programs, including Pennsylvania State University's College of Agricultural Sciences and Cooperative Extension. The suggested cut also does not impact the animal health diagnostic lab at the veterinary school's New Bolton Center.
The $30.1 million cut represents roughly 23 percent of the veterinary school's $129 million annual operating budget.
The governor announced on Feb. 7 his intention to defund veterinary education with the release of a spending proposal that calls for severe belt-tightening measures. The 990-page document contains $2 billion in statewide spending cuts aimed at helping to plug a projected $3 billion budget deficit.
"This has been shocking," Hendricks said. "Our ability to recruit is greatly compromised; acceptances of our offers for admissions for the incoming class are running 25 percent behind last year. Our students are losing their minds over this."
Historically, Penn's veterinary school has been heavily supported by the state, which at one time provided as much as one third of the program's budget. The school was caught off-guard, Hendricks said, because lawmakers have increased allocations to the program during the past two years. Until now, the biggest cut in state support occurred during the economic downturn in 2008, when funding was reduced by 34 percent, or $14.4 million. State support has since rebounded, more than doubling during the past eight years.
Wolf points out that Penn is a private institution with a $10.7 billion endowment and shouldn't lean on taxpayers to supplement its veterinary school budget. By comparison, veterinary education at Tufts University, another private institution, receives much less support from Massachusetts, he's remarked.
There's also much less agriculture in New England, Hendricks countered.
"Penn is private, but we operate more like a state school," she explained. "If we lose our state funding, we would have to adopt a more global approach. We would no longer be Pennsylvania's veterinary school, which is how we've always thought of ourselves and operated."
Penn's veterinary school, one of the nation's oldest and most prestigious programs, is the only education option in Pennsylvania for aspiring veterinarians. Much like state schools, the program offers a break on tuition for residents, a population that is 40 percent of the veterinary school's student body. In-state students receive a $10,000 annual tuition subsidy.
Unsubsidized, tuition and fees come to $55,798 a year, not including housing. That's near the top of the tuition spectrum for U.S. veterinary medical programs.
Apart from subsidizing resident tuition, Penn's veterinary school uses the state's allocation to help support public health and agriculture via disease surveillance and research at diagnostic laboratories. While most students in other U.S. veterinary medical programs lean toward companion animal practice, Penn's student body reflects a distinct agriculture bent.
"The majority of our class is not small animal ...," Hendricks said. "They major in mixed animal, large animal, food animal, food production, and equine — so a mix."
She hopes the school's funding will be restored during budget negotiations.
"The governor proposes a budget, and legislators discuss it; that's how this works," Hendricks said.
Or doesn't work, critics of the Legislature observe. Budget negotiations have a tendency to drag and gridlock due to partisan politics in Pennsylvania, where lawmakers recently set a record for the longest impasse in modern history. The budget for fiscal year 2015-2016 was not signed until until last March, nine months after the deadline.
Four months later, Wolf quietly signed a spending plan for fiscal year 2016-2017, almost on schedule. Insiders predict that approving a budget for 2017-2018 could go smoothly if the Republican-controlled General Assembly has its way. On Monday, House Republicans passed out of committee a budget proposal that resembles the governor's version, including the cut to veterinary education. It advanced without a single vote from House Democrats.
If the full House affirms, the measure will move to the Senate, which also has a Republican majority.
"This budget takes hard look at state government and makes tough decisions," the governor said in his February address.
In a statement on Penn's website, officials point out that the veterinary school has provided public health and agriculture support to the state, particularly during lean financial times:
"The school is a major contributor to maintaining the viability, health and profitability of our state's diverse and economically important livestock and poultry industries. During the 2015 budget impasse, which occurred during the most recent national avian influenza outbreak, PennVet played a critical role, conducting over 70,000 tests to check the costly spread of disease."
Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding, a former dean of Delaware Valley University's agriculture college, reportedly has characterized the cut to the veterinary school as a "wake-up call" for the public and industry to decide whether the private institution should receive support from taxpayers.
Editor's note: This article was updated to reflect a recent vote in the Pennsylvania Legislature.