Legislators deliberate over University funds

Coralie Carlson

Spring break offered no rest from academic work for state and federal lawmakers.
During the University’s March vacation, elected officials and University administrators kept their eyes on legislation wading through committees in St. Paul and Washington, D.C. The bills at both levels could significantly affect University funding and students’ personal finances.
The University’s bonding budget, which already passed in both chambers, will fund construction and renovation projects on all four campuses.
Now the Capital Bonding Conference committee needs to reach an agreement between House and Senate versions that grant the University $114.74 million and $172 million, respectively.
On Friday, committee members asked University President Mark Yudof for help in whittling the University’s $249 million request down to that range.
Conferees questioned Yudof about splitting funds between two big-ticket items — the $53.6 million Walter Digital Library and $70 million Cellular and Molecular Biology building.
The digital library project could not begin with partial funding, but planning and construction for the biology complex could be phased in over several years, Yudof told lawmakers.
Gov. Arne Carlson, a stronger proponent for University funding this year than in the past, met with committee members early last week who wanted to weigh his support. Carlson also asked University officials to consider splitting the biology initiative over several bonding sessions.
Although lawmakers are only partially meeting the University’s request, Yudof said he was still on good terms with the Legislature. Any of the figures discussed for the University would still be the largest bonding budget in the school’s history, he said.
“I think when the honeymoon’s over, they’ll give us a clearer message,” he added.
Legislators gave no indication during the meeting whether they planned to fund other high-profile construction projects like renovations to Murphy and Ford Halls and the architecture building.
“I think they’re holding their cards very close to their chests,” said Steve Rosenstone, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts.
After committee members reveal their bill, it must pass on the House and Senate floors and needs the governor’s signature to become law.
Members of the Higher Education Supplemental Committee will convene today after a week of canceled meetings. This committee will settle financial aid, regent selection and appropriation differences between the House and Senate bills.
With only two weeks left in the state’s legislative session, University officials are turning an eye to Capitol Hill. Congress is processing the Higher Education Reauthorization Act, which distributes federal funds to colleges over the next six years.
Debate over student loans threatens to hold up the legislation. According to current law, the interest on student loans is scheduled to drop from 8.2 percent to 6.9 percent on July 1.
Bankers say the decrease would make student loans unprofitable and therefore, they will not offer loans to as many students. More than half of college students rely on loans to finance their education, according to a Government Accounting Office 1998 report.
House members and executive officials support differing solutions and the Senate is still deliberating on the loan problem .
Other provisions in the bill would streamline education funding by organizing it more like a business. Current drafts eliminate unfunded programs and scholarships, consolidate graduate school fellowships and modify Pell Grant regulations.
Rep. Martin Sabo, DFL-Minn., asked Education committee members in the House to consider changing the formula which determines Pell grants. Currently, a student who works receives a smaller Pell Grant than a student from the same income bracket that doesn’t work. “That just struck me as unfair,” Sabo said.
In a letter to committee members, Sabo called this a “work disincentive” and suggested ignoring student income in Pell Grant calculations.
House and Senate Committees are expected to review the bills this week.