Lawmakers draft early higher ed proposals

by Molly Moker

Although the legislative session does not begin until February, lawmakers are already pushing for key initiatives.

State DFL leaders said decreased tuition will be a top priority, and Republicans want budget cuts that would take direct control of the University Extension Service away from the University.

State Rep. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, said the DFL plans to introduce a bill that would restore $95.5 million from last year’s budget cuts to the University and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities.

Latz, who serves on the Higher Education Finance Committee, said the money would offset tuition increases.

However, with a Republican-controlled House, the bill faces challenges.

House majority leader Erik Paulson, R-Eden Prairie, said a bill decreasing tuition is not feasible.

“The reality is that the state is facing budget cuts, the economy is slow and our country is at war,” Paulson said. “We’re trying to find a balance. If the Democrats offer this bill, it’s not a fair game to play.”

Latz said this resistance was no surprise and progress on the bill was unlikely.

“(The Republicans) will probably say ‘Sorry, there’s no money,’ ” Latz said. “But it’s really a matter of priorities. We want to invest in higher education.”

Latz said the $95.5 million would come from an estimated $50 million in excess revenue when the economy improves.

The rest of the money would come from closing corporate tax loopholes, Latz said.

Rep. Dean Urdahl, R-Grove City, said the only way a change would occur is if parents and students pressured legislators, which has not happened yet.

“We need to see 150,000 people contacting their representatives and their governor if they want to make a change,” Urdahl said.

Paulson said because the University sets tuition rates it could increase even if they got more money – which has happened in the past, he said.

Shifting money, control

Meanwhile, Urdahl is planning a bill that would cut $9.6 million from the $17 million University Extension Service budget.

“The University’s responsibility will just be lessened,” Urdahl said.

However, Jeanne Markell, assistant dean for the Extension Service, said the cut would be “devastating,” forcing the program to eliminate 68 on-campus teaching and research positions and 34 field positions – one third of the total posts.

The Extension Service offers agricultural expertise and research to counties.

Urdahl devised the plan after the University decided to consolidate Extension offices, a move Markell said was necessary after budget cuts from the Legislature last year.

Beginning in January, 18 regional offices will serve groups of counties, and counties will be responsible for paying for their own offices if they want additional services. Previously, there were 87 offices – one in each county – and individual specialists for each county.

Markell said under budget cuts, the reorganization is a service the University can offer.

“We wanted to give the highest-quality service that would be possible with the budget cut situation,” Markell said.

She said the new plan still effectively brings University resources to the people, and nine counties have already approved the plan.

However, Urdahl said the plan will not service counties equally and said many extension specialists agree with him.

Under Urdahl’s plan, each county would receive $80,000 from the University cuts, allowing them to hire their own experts.

Urdahl said the money would likely be returned to University employees because counties would probably hire University agricultural specialists.

“I feel the University has the best people for this,” Urdahl said. “So why wouldn’t they continue to hire them?”

Markell said although they do not agree with the bill, Extension officials are willing and interested to work with politicians to address their concerns.