U budget issues still unresolved

by Chris Vetter

The state higher education conference committee failed to tackle any important issues on Tuesday as members met for less than one minute.
“This process is like observing continental drift,” said Ruth Johnson, DFL-St. Peter. “No headline news here.”
Despite the short meeting, House members of the committee announced they had agreed to 23 of 25 noncontroversial changes the Senate proposed late Monday night. Many of the modifications involved minor wording changes.
The committee meeting was brief because House conference members did not want to miss a full session of the House that was taking place at the same time.
During the committee meeting, Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, offered a list of 40 noncontroversial changes for the Senate members to consider today. Senate committee members and their staff members will examine the list and should approve the majority of the changes.
Today’s session should be a busy one because the committee will decide most of the compromise bill’s funding changes. Committee members are ready to meet all day to finish the bill. Any unfinished business will be wrapped up on Thursday.
One of Pelowski’s changes that House committee members are expected to endorse is a $1.6 million endowed chair for the University’s political science department.
The Coya Knutson endowed chair, which would recognize Minnesota’s first congresswoman, is only listed in the House version.
The other major item the Senators will decide upon is whether to adopt the House Gopher State Bonds program, which would allow parents to buy state and federal tax-exempt bonds in small denominations to save for their children’s higher education.
The Senate bill has neither of these two provisions, and neither item has been discussed by the committee.

In other higher education committee news:
ù It is still unclear if legislators will decouple state and federal Pell grants in their conference committee, an action they will likely discuss today.
Separating the grants became an important issue this week after President Bill Clinton announced a balanced budget plan that would increase federal Pell grant awards. Under current state law, students’ state grants would decrease with a Pell award increase.
Rep. Hilda Bettermann, R-Brandon, said she thinks the separation is unlikely.
“The language is not in either bill,” Bettermann said. “The governor does not favor decoupling. We’ve heard a lot about it (in committee), but couldn’t come to any agreement.”
However, Rep. Lyndon Carlson, DFL-Crystal, said he believes some changes are likely.
“It becomes very important with President Clinton’s agreement on Pell increases,” he said. “It will impact a lot of Minnesota students.”