Senate passes capital budget

by Coralie Carlson

After five hours of debate, the Senate approved a nearly $1 billion statewide budget bill for capital projects Thursday that would send the University its largest construction budget in history.
The University’s cut, $172 million, is 68 percent of what the school originally requested. Plans to create a digital technology center in Walter Library and restore Murphy Hall and the Architecture building fell by the wayside.
Sen. Edward Oliver, R-Deephaven, offered a last-ditch amendment to include funding for Walter Digital Library, a $53.6 million project. Oliver cited University President Mark Yudof’s plans to cut $6.3 million in administrative costs as grounds for funding Yudof’s pet project. The amendment died on a voice vote.
The chairman of the Senate’s Higher Education Budget Division committee, LeRoy Stumpf, said Oliver was speaking in favor of a good project, not making a serious suggestion for the bill.
“It was over and above the targets we had set,” said Stumpf, DFL-Thief River Falls. His committee had a target of $312 million for all higher education requests.
But what’s unique about the final package, which passed on a 45 to 22 vote, is that lawmakers opted to pay with surplus cash instead of state bonds.
Senate Democrats won a heated battle to finance the budget expenditures with cash from the state’s $1.8 million surplus. Republicans favored funding the bill through state bond sales — essentially borrowed money — and returning the surplus to Minnesotans through tax incentives.
Sen. Thomas Neuville, R-Northfield, proposed an amendment to partially fund the capital bill with bonding money and give a $290 tax rebate to every Minnesotan over 19 years old. But Majority Leader Roger Moe, DFL-Erskine, said the amendment was like giving taxpayers a dollar and then taking $1.50 back, because the bonding money will need to be repaid with interest over 20 years.
Neuville’s amendment failed 25 to 41.
All the talk of tax rebates and interest payments didn’t distract from the fact that $79 million was cut from the University’s budget.
“It’s disappointing that they didn’t fund the Walter Library digital science project and it’s disappointing that they didn’t fund the Architecture or Murphy,” said Richard Pfutzenreuter, assistant vice president for the Office of Budget and Finance. “We need to make sure these projects get funded in the House.”
After the House passes its version of the bill, differences between the two will be worked out in conference committee. If one chamber funds the projects, the committee could keep the provision.