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At Issue: Higher ed funding approved

Published (5/15/2009)
By Nick Busse
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The omnibus higher education finance conference committee meets May 12. (Photo by Tom Olmscheid)State funding for higher education would receive a 2 percent total cut, under a bill awaiting action by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Sponsored by Rep. Tom Rukavina (DFL-Virginia) and Sen. Sandy Pappas (DFL-St. Paul), SF2083 would fund the Office of Higher Education, the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system for the 2010-11 biennium.

As amended by a conference committee, the bill includes budget reductions of 0.2 percent for OHE and 2 percent each for the university and for MnSCU. The cuts would likely have been much deeper were it not for federal stabilization funds, which the bill uses to plug much of the biennial budget gap.

“I think we came back with a really good higher education bill, under the circumstances,” Rukavina said on the House floor May 13.

The House voted 103-31 to pass the bill as amended by conference; the Senate passed it 54-12 earlier in the day.

Under the conference report, tuition increases would be capped at no more than 3 percent per year at MnSCU institutions — an increase over the House’s original proposal of 2 percent per year. The bill also suggests a no more than $300 per year increase at the university. Senate conferees opposed the tuition caps, arguing they amounted to micromanaging, but Rukavina insisted on keeping them in the bill as a way to help students in trying economic times.

Student financial aid would get a boost under the bill, which would raise the four-year tuition maximum in the state grant program as well as the maximum allowance for living and miscellaneous expenses. Work-study would also get a $5 million boost — something Rukavina said hasn’t happened in more than a decade.

A House proposal to repeal the Achieve scholarship program, which Senate conferees opposed, was taken out in conference committee. Instead, the program, which focuses on low-income students who achieve good grades in high school, will receive a 54 percent reduction from its forecasted biennial base.

Rukavina reiterated his warning that state higher education programs will face a dire financial situation in the 2012-13 biennium, when federal stimulus funds will no longer be available to soften the impact of budget cuts.

“If we don’t do something to raise revenue, there are going to be huge layoffs and programs are going to be affected … and tuition could be increased dramatically.”

Compromises on policy

A Senate proposal adopted in conference committee would create a new class of mid-level dental practitioners called “dental therapists,” with the goal of increasing access to dental care especially in rural areas. The provisions, which were not in the House version of the bill, also spell out educational and licensure requirements.

House language that would have prohibited MnSCU from filling vacant administrative and managerial positions, and from raising administrator salaries, was removed in order to reach a compromise with the Senate. Similarly, House provisions directing the university not to create new administrative positions or increase administrative salaries were also removed. Also deleted was a House proposal to have the Legislature, rather than the governor, appoint members to the MnSCU Board of Trustees.

A Rukavina proposal to force college bookstores to offer clothing made in the United States, “to the extent possible,” is included in the language. Institutions are also required to report back to the Legislature on their efforts to comply with the provision.

A controversial provision that would prohibit the university from offering alcoholic beverages for sale at a sports arena or stadium unless it offers them throughout the entire stadium, and not just in premium seating areas, is also in the bill.

A provision that would ban the use of state funds for research involving human cloning also made the final cut.

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