University bills emerge in state Legislature

The University’s $123.4 million budget request for 2008 is up for vote.

Courtney Blanchard

While students were relaxing during the break, legislators introduced hundreds of new bills at the Capitol in St. Paul, many of which could impact the University.

Among the bills thrown in the hopper are ones that could mandate universal health care, make it illegal to drive while talking on a cell phone, raise the gas tax by 10 cents and establish a policy for state-funded stem cell research.

University funding is one of the biggest issues, however, and legislators will vote on granting an increased budget request, as well as hear bills to stabilize undergraduate tuition and allocate money to build bioscience facilities.

University funding

The University has a major stake at the Capitol this year. This session, legislators will vote on whether to pass the University’s budget request of $123.4 million for the 2008-2009 biennium.

The Higher Education and Work Force Development Policy and Finance Division Committee heard testimony this week from students about the effects of rising tuition while it considers the budget request.

Today, students from the University of Minnesota will testify in front of the committee, following students from other schools in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.

Senior at Southwest Minnesota State University Justin McMartin, state chair of the Minnesota State University Student Association, spoke before the committee Tuesday to persuade it to grant more funds to higher education.

McMartin told the committee that when the state cut funds over the past several years, tuition increased to make up the difference.

“Some (students) took fewer classes to lessen the financial impact, which meant that they would not only extend their graduation date, but also would inevitably pay more tuition in the long run,” he said.

Maintenance funding

The University is also requesting additional funding for building projects. Over the next few weeks, committees will hear the University’s request of $22 million for general building maintenance and $310 million for building new bioscience facilities.

Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, is the chair of the Capitol Investment committee, which will hold a hearing for the building maintenance request.

Hausman said during a bonding year, major projects like the Carlson School of Management expansion can overshadow basic requests for maintenance.

“We will try to do some of that catch-up on maintenance,” she said.

Stem cell bill

Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, said her four-year-old bill on establishing a policy for state-funded embryonic stem cell research has a good chance of passing this session.

The bill would allow the state to provide funds for stem cell research, even on new lines that aren’t eligible for federal funding. Under the supervision of a bioethical board, new embryos could be derived from donations, but selling fetal tissue would be a crime under the bill.

It also raises the issue of what to do with unused embryos at fertility clinics. The bill would allow doctors to inform patients at fertility clinics about the option of donating unused embryos.

“In this country, we have a lot of destruction of embryos during in vitro fertilization,” Kahn said. “There are all these things we’ve never talked about.”

Meri Firpo, assistant professor of medicine in the University’s Stem Cell Institute, uses stem cells in her diabetes research.

Firpo said the biggest challenge in the field of stem cell research is funding. Because of the strict federal funding policy – very few lines are eligible – the Stem Cell Institute raises money to pay for all research and facilities of non-federally approved lines.

The University has its own policy not to accept state funds for stem cell research, Firpo said. But after the passage of the bill, the policy may change.

Firpo said the bill allows the University to perform its own oversight, which would benefit the research at the Institute because the University already has “progressive policies” and a network of ethical review and research policies in place.

The only thing the bill lacks, she added, is funding for the research.

“This will allow a little more resources at the university level to be used, but it doesn’t actually provide any funding for the research,” Firpo said.