U likely to see a slice of state’s surplus

by Chris Vetter

New information about a burgeoning state surplus could lead to a funding increase for the University.
Gov. Arne Carlson outlined spending plans for a surprising $2.3 billion state surplus at the Capitol on Thursday. Among the many plans Carlson outlined for the money is an additional $30 million increase in funding for the University.
The proposal brings the governor’s total recommended increase for the University to $160 million for the biennium, Carlson said.
The University is requesting a $230 million increase for the next two years, bringing its total funding request to $580 million per year.
Marvin Marshak, senior vice president for Academic Affairs, said he is pleased with the governor’s recommendations.
“I’m very gratified by the governor’s support,” Marshak said. “I’m grateful that he is recognizing the initiatives we have been working on.”
The plan Carlson outlined probably represents a one-time funding increase for the University, Marshak said. This means that the Legislature would not use that level of funding as a starting point for determining future increases.
Among the areas that Carlson designated for the use of the $30 million is $10 million for classroom upgrades. Marshak credited a recent visit by President-elect Mark Yudof with this stipulation.
“Mr. Yudof has suggested to the governor the $10 million in classroom repair,” he said. “He likely had an effect in securing the money.”
Carlson said he made the specification because technological and structural updates are needed in University classrooms.
“We must get (University students) better, more appropriate classrooms,” Carlson said.
While the University appears to be in the governor’s favor, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system does not. Carlson did not recommend that MnSCU receive an additional increase.
But Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, who chairs the House Higher Education Committee, said the governor needs to address MnSCU, as well as the University.
“I wish the governor would look at all of higher education, such as financial aid needs and MnSCU,” Pelowski said.
Mike Wilhelmi, a Senate Higher Education Committee administrator, said he is glad to see the governor’s increased commitment to the University. The committee, which is in the process of authoring a funding bill for the University, will continue to focus on how it can improve conditions at the University, he added.
“Sen. (LeRoy) Stumpf said he wants to focus more on students, meaning tuition relief,” Wilhelmi said. Stumpf, DFL-Thief River Falls, chairs the senate committee.
Originally, the budget surplus was estimated to be about $1.4 billion dollars last November. However, a strong economy and growth of jobs and wages has been credited with the $900 million increase. In the last few days, political officials estimated that the increase would be between $200 million and $500 million.
Kris Sanda, the public service commissioner, said the fact that there is any surplus at all is quite an improvement over 1991, when Carlson took office. The state deficit in 1991 was $2.2 billion.
Other plans for the surplus call for a $750 million tax rebate that will go directly back to taxpayers. “This is their money,” Carlson said. “This really belongs to them.”
The governor has also agreed to consider property tax reform, which he had suggested not funding prior to the surplus announcement. Under the proposal, $250 million would be used for property tax relief and reform over the next three years. Carlson added that he would not sign a property tax relief bill that did not also include reform of the system.
As Carlson finished his presentation, he threw in one final area where he would like to see some of the extra money spent.
“Lastly, if the Legislature wants to, they could throw in a small stadium for me,” he said.