Higher education bill clears another committee

by Brady Averill

In a matter of minutes, the House Ways and Means Committee passed the higher education budget bill relatively unscathed Wednesday.

Now, the bill will go to the House floor. The Senate Higher Education Budget Division is scheduled to go over its version of a higher education bill today.

The House bill gives the University $1.2 billion, which is approximately $102 million more than it received in its last two-year budget. The University requested $1.29 billion, which is $126 million more than it received in the last budget.

The bill includes $15 million in additional one-time funding in 2006 for the University and Mayo Clinic’s biotechnology and medical genomics partnership – money the University never requested in its proposal.

The money for the partnership is being taken away from the University’s biosciences and technology core areas.

That could result in a 9.5 percent tuition increase in 2006 and a 5.5 percent increase in 2007, said Richard Pfutzenreuter, the University’s chief financial officer.

There was no progress at Wednesday’s meeting, he said.

There is a chance the bill could change when members from the Senate and House discuss it in conference committee.

“We really need (Gov. Tim Pawlenty) to step in conference committee and straighten this messy House bill up,” Pfutzenreuter said.

Some representatives said taking the money away from programs and using it for the partnership was a problem.

Rep. Ron Erhardt, R-Edina, said he’s afraid it will drive up tuition.

Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, said that the partnership appropriation arrived at the Higher Education Finance Committee at the “last hour.” Funding the partnership can look like it’s cutting other University programs, but the partnership is a University program, he said.

Nornes said he was optimistic it would not result in big tuition increases.

Rep. Lyndon Carlson, DFL-Crystal, said the underlying problem in the bill is it does not advocate enough for higher education.

He said students have already endured six years of double-digit tuition increases.

“I’m very concerned about access to our higher education institutions,” he said.

Carlson said lawmakers should think about the Legislature’s relationship with Minnesota colleges and universities.

The bill also includes an option in which the University could get more money if the Legislature were to pass the state-tribal casino partnership.

The difference would be approximately $12 million in additional money for the University. However, it would still not meet the University’s request.