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At Issue: Help for college students

Published (4/24/2009)
By Nick Busse
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Rep. Tom Rukavina, chairman of the House Higher Education and Workforce Development Finance and Policy Division, presents the division’s omnibus finance bill to the House April 22. (Photo by Tom Olmscheid)“Thank heavens for the stimulus package,” was all Rep. Tom Rukavina (DFL-Virginia) had left to say after two hours of floor debate on the omnibus higher education finance bill April 22.

College students could be thankful too, as the House’s higher education funding package takes advantage of federal stimulus money to help hold down tuition rates at the University of Minnesota and at Minnesota State Colleges and Universities schools over the next two years.

Sponsored by Rukavina and Sen. Sandy Pappas (DFL-St. Paul), HF869/SF2083* would fund public postsecondary schools and student financial aid for the 2010–2011 biennium. The House passed the bill 86-46 and sent it back to the Senate, where a different version passed 41-23 on April 17. A conference committee is expected to be convened in an attempt reach compromise on the two bills.

The bill would provide $1.2 billion each to MnSCU and the University of Minnesota, with $130.4 million of MnSCU’s share and $231.5 million of the university’s coming from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 — better known as the federal stimulus package. The numbers are identical to those in Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s budget proposals.

The funding also comes with tuition caps that limit increases to no more than $300 per year at the university and no more than 2 percent per year at MnSCU institutions. In addition, the bill would forbid the university from increasing salaries for administrators and from creating any new administrative positions. Similarly MnSCU would have to freeze staff salaries for two years and leave vacant any nonessential administrative positions.

The Office of Higher Education would receive $385.4 million under the bill’s provisions — $15 million more than the governor recommends. Most of the additional funding would go toward student financial aid programs such as the State Grant Program, work-study and child care assistance grants.

Rep. Sarah Anderson (R-Plymouth) tried unsuccessfully to amend the bill by capping any potential increases in student services fees. She argued the fees, which fund student activities and organizations, have become a major burden to college students.

“It’s really important that we get a handle on this, folks,” Anderson said, noting that a bill she recently saw showed a student being charged $2,000 in fees on top of $4,000 in tuition.

Rukavina opposed the amendment, saying he didn’t know if it was enforceable; however, he agreed that the Legislature should address the issue in the future.

The bill also includes a $2.7 million appropriation to the Mayo Foundation to help increase the number of doctors in rural areas and similar purposes. Pawlenty recommended $250,000 less in his budget proposal.

Policy changes

The bill includes policy changes covering a variety of subjects ranging from alcohol at sports events to clothing sold in campus bookstores.

A provision proffered by Rukavina would require bookstores at public colleges and universities to sell only clothing manufactured in the United States. House Minority Leader Marty Seifert (R-Marshall) tried unsuccessfully to remove the provision of the bill through an amendment, arguing the policy could bring about “very severe unintended consequences” in terms of lost revenue to colleges. Rukavina later accepted an amendment that softens the requirement.

New university or MnSCU students would have the option of locking in a fixed tuition rate for up to four years, under provisions taken from a bill sponsored by Rep. Mark Buesgens (R-Jordan). The option would be open to students who enroll in the fall of 2010 or later, and a student’s tuition would be set at the rate they pay in their first semester of enrollment. After four years — or two years, for those pursuing two-year degrees — tuition would increase to the rate charged to newly enrolled students.

Veterinary students at the university could look forward to a new loan forgiveness program under provisions taken from a bill sponsored by Rep. Mary Ellen Otremba (DFL-Long Prairie). The program would focus on helping veterinarians who operate full-time practices in “underserved” rural areas and work mostly with food animals. The bill includes $225,000 for the program.

The process by which candidates are appointed to the University of Minnesota Board of Regents and the MnSCU Board of Trustees would also receive an overhaul. Under the bill, trustees would be appointed by the Legislature in a process similar to the one used to elect regents. Currently, the governor appoints trustees. In addition, the legislative advisory councils that currently recommend trustee and regent candidates would be eliminated.

Rep. Bud Nornes (R-Fergus Falls) unsuccessfully offered an amendment to remove the provisions from the bill, arguing it is unnecessary for the Legislature to get involved in selecting trustees. Rukavina disagreed.

“I think us having some input would be very beneficial for these students and the system rather than the governor having complete say over who gets appointed,” Rukavina said.

Rep. Steve Smith (R-Mound) successfully amended the bill with a provision that would prevent the university from using state funds for any research that would involve human cloning. Smith said a similar ban has been adopted by the U.S. Congress; however, opponents like Rep. Phyllis Kahn (DFL-Mpls) said the amendment could have the effect of harming research.

The bill also would allow the university to obtain a liquor license for the new TCF Bank Stadium and other facilities only if liquor is allowed throughout the facility, and not just in premium seating areas.

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