House passes higher ed legislation

The bill cuts University and MnSCU funds by $370 million over the next two years.

by Libby George

Moving one step closer to making tuition hikes and massive higher education budget cuts a reality, the House passed its higher education bill Tuesday with 81-51 approval.

Consistent with the governor’s plan, the House bill followed a higher-tuition, higher-aid model, cutting the University and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system by approximately $370 million over the next two years, but the House cut $50 million less than the governor’s proposal.

“This bill is difficult,” said Rep. Doug Stang, R-Cold Spring, the Higher Education Finance Committee chairman. “We cannot afford to keep doing business as usual.”

While the Senate, in its plan passed last week, also increased money going to financial aid, it gave $50 million more to the University and MnSCU than the House plan, and Senate Higher Education Budget Division Chairwoman Sandra Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, called the House and governor’s plan a “total retrenchment in our traditional commitment to higher education.”

“(The proposal) showed (Gov. Tim) Pawlenty’s lack of historical knowledge about the University,” Pappas said.

Stang, however, stood behind the plan, saying it ensures access for lower-income students.

“(The Senate) invested the money in the systems,” Stang said. “We try to cushion the blow to the lowest-income students.”

Other discrepancies

The House also included a provision that would put two students on the Regent Candidate Advisory Council and make the higher education office a Cabinet agency. Another rider on the bill would change the student fees process to a positive check-off system.

Minnesota Student Association Legislative Affairs Chairman Andy Pomroy said the fees change is a mistake.

“It’s really an issue that I don’t believe the Legislature should get involved with – how students tax themselves,” Pomroy said.

He added he hopes the Senate will cut it in conference committee.

Pomroy was in favor of the students on the Regents Candidate Advisory Council – a provision he suggested.

Finally, House members hope to turn the Higher Education Services Office into the Office of Higher Education – a Cabinet agency with the director appointed by the governor.

“This is in line with the governor’s recommendations for the office of higher education,” Stang said.

He added that it will improve communication and accountability.

Higher Education Services Office communications member Phil Lewenstein called the change a “serious mistake” and said there would be no independent advocate for students across the state.

Common provisions

Although House and Senate members quibble over exact cuts, the plans include several similar provisions – meaning certain changes for students.

Directly responding to riots involving University students after the Gophers’ NCAA men’s hockey championship, House and Senate plans both make students convicted of rioting ineligible for state grants and force them to pay out-of-state tuition.

“I don’t think this is the kind of behavior taxpayers need to support in Minnesota,” said Rep. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester.

Both bills also change the state grant program, including limiting full-time students to eight semesters of grants instead of the current 10 and protecting state child care and work-study grants – which were cut drastically and made unavailable last year after the Higher Education Services Office transferred their funds to cover shortfalls in the general grant program.

The new plan prevents the Higher Education Services Office from doing so in the future.

Compromise coming

Before the governor can sign anything into law, however, the House and Senate must reconcile the differences in the bills – which Pappas did not see as a fair fight.

“We’re outnumbered; we don’t have the votes,” Pappas said. “All we could do (for higher education) is shut down state government.”

House DFLers also saw a tough fight on the horizon.

Rep. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, said the House bill itself was far too partisan.

“There are two very different caucuses here,” Latz said. “Only time will tell what will be the result of that.”

Libby George covers politics and welcomes comments at [email protected]