House passes education budget; bill moves to Senate

by Erin Ghere

The House higher education committee passed a set of budget recommendations for the University Friday morning, but just barely.
Partisan differences revealed themselves during the vote, which was split six yes, five no for the higher education finance bill. The vote was divided strictly along party lines, and Republicans hold the majority of seats.
Higher education committee member Rep. Lyndon Carlson, DFL-Crystal, said three issues are causing the rift: the $37 million request for health education, the formula being used for financial aid distribution and concerns about funding for the University of Minnesota-Rochester branch.
“We funded higher education in terms of state appropriations according to the governor’s recommendation, but what was left out was the endowment from the tobacco settlement,” Carlson said.
The Senate and Gov. Jesse Ventura want to create several endowments from money received in the tobacco settlement, one of which would fund the Academic Health Center.
House Republicans would rather give the money back to citizens as rebates. That left the University with a $31 million hole in funding for medical education, Carlson said.
The total amount of funding recommended for higher education is nearly $250 million. That amount was split four ways: between the University, the Higher Education Services Office, the Mayo Medical Foundation and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities.
The University and MnSCU were each budgeted about $118 million. The biggest chunk of funding was recommended for increasing faculty pay and enriching the undergraduate student experience.
A second point of contention in the House higher education committee is the structure of the financial aid program. As it stands, students at more expensive schools are favored because of the formula used to distribute the money.
And as the Legislature increases the amount of money available in student aid grants, each student’s total share of that sum is decreased.
The House higher education committee is recommending $8 million be put toward Pell Grants. Sixty percent of that will go to private college students, Carlson said. “Public college students are not being treated as fairly,” he added.
Rep. Peggy Leppik, R-Golden Valley, chairwoman of the House higher education committee, said she expects the financial aid dispute to be one of the major decisions resolved on the House floor.
“The DFL is pretty much solidly opposed to decreasing the student share,” she said, “and the Republicans are split.”
She added that she is “reasonably sure” the bill will be changed before it is passed because there are more legislators who represent areas with public schools than private schools.
The third dividing issue is funding for the proposed University of Minnesota-Rochester branch campus.
The institution, for which the house committee allotted $5.3 million, will be a cooperative effort by MnSCU and the University of Minnesota to establish a non-residential branch in Rochester, focusing on part-time continuing education.
Democrats questioned the idea of giving the University a one-time appropriation for the project with no funding into the next biennium, Carlson said.
The House Ways and Means Committee will look at the bill today and take a vote. The full House will vote on Friday.
After passing the House, the bill will be compared with the Senate version of the higher education finance bill — which is still in committee — and the chambers will have a joint session to iron out differences before it is sent to Gov. Ventura.
The bill is expected to be signed or vetoed by the end of May.