Lawmakers: U competes for limited funds

Anne Preller and

The University is bracing for another battle for funding from the state Legislature.

Facing limited funds, a struggling economy and escalating security costs, legislators say they might be unable to meet some of the
institution’s budget requests.

“There’s really no money to spend this next session … I think everybody’s feeling the pinch of the economic slowdown, and the state is really not in a position to do much in terms of funding,” said Sen. Julie Sabo, DFL-Minneapolis, a Senate Education Committee member.

On Friday, the House Capital Investment Committee – which allocates the University’s restoration and construction funds – toured University construction sites to see how state funds are put to use.

Wearing hard hats and safety goggles, representatives walked amid debris and construction workers at 10 East Bank restoration sites and future project areas.

“The University’s request is the highest among higher education in most instances. We came here to ask questions … we want to know where we get the biggest bang for our buck,” said Rep. Jerry Dempsey, R-Red Wing.

Rep. Dave Bishop, R-Rochester, said the University is only one of many institutions vying for state funds. He said the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system – which comprises 39 institutions – has an equal need for resources.

“The University usually does very well in getting funds … but you have to keep in mind that the ‘U’ of ‘M’ is not our only priority,” Bishop said.

Committee Chairman Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, said he was impressed with the Walter Library renovations. He said he has heard complaints about sluggish construction but said the projects are complex.

“There’s been a good deal of deferred maintenance, and it’s unfortunate it wasn’t maintained more regularly. We’re looking at ways to speed up construction,” Knoblach said.

At the vacant Mineral Resources Research Center, legislators questioned the efficiency of heating a building that has broken windows.

The University is requesting $18.4 million to renovate the building – which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places – and plans to turn it into a center for the College of Education and Human Development.

Mike Berthelsen of the University’s Office of Budget and Finance said renovation decisions are based on the historical
significance and the structural strength of buildings. He said many of the University’s facilities are outdated and faulty.

Berthelsen said the University wants to create a freshman hub near Nicholson and Folwell halls. The school is requesting $24 million to design, furnish and renovate Nicholson Hall.

State legislators said they want to support higher education financially, but said funds are in short supply.

Rep. Mary Jo McGuire, DFL-Falcon Heights, said the Sept. 11 attacks and ongoing threat of
bioterrorism could further strain resources.

“Will we put our money into protecting ourselves from terrorism or will we put it into education? Will we refocus our resources? I think we need to be thoughtful in how we do that,” McGuire said.

Other legislators cite this summer’s tax rebates as a cause for limited funds.

“As long as you got people calling for cutting taxes or giving money back in tax rebates, it’s going to be very hard to fund the important institutions in the state to the level we’d like to fund them,” said Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis.

Kahn, who represents the East Bank campus area, said she was pleased with the restoration projects she viewed.

The University is the most important part of the state’s higher education portfolio, Kahn said, because it competes on a national level.

“The main pitch,” she said, “is to try and get a political climate that believes that it’s important to the state to spend money on higher education.”

McGuire said new tax laws, lowered taxes and the declining economy are reasons for the lack of the surplus the state has enjoyed in previous years.

“To the extent that people and the University were looking forward to getting more dollars this year, I’m just not sure if we’ll have any to give out.” McGuire said. “I wish we would.”

McGuire and Sabo both said the Legislature will focus more on policy than budget issues during the upcoming session, which begins Jan. 29.

“Everyone will face difficulties this year,” Sabo said, “and the University is no exception.”

 

Anne Preller and Jessica Thompson
welcome comments at [email protected] and [email protected]