Sen. Pappas to students: Take action over tuition

Josh Verges

Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, told students Monday that Lobby Day demonstrations Feb. 17 at the State Capitol won’t be enough to curb tuition hikes.

“It only works if it’s sustained and sustained throughout the campaign season,” said Pappas, the state higher education finance chairwoman.

Following lunch with University DFL party members, Pappas spoke with a dozen students at Coffman Union.

Pappas criticized fellow legislators for turning higher education into a campaign issue, blaming the Republicans’ insistence on no additional taxes for the University’s climbing tuition.

“People are frustrated that they’re caught in this ‘no more taxes’ loop,” Pappas said. “I know the University was not extravagant in their (funding) request. Those days are over. (University President Bob) Bruininks was very reasonable in his request.”

Sen. Bob Kierlin, R-Winona, said Republican senators are also discouraged by the House’s moratorium on new taxes, but said voter pressure is largely to blame.

“I think that with most of the (budget) decisions, it’s what the people wanted,” Kierlin said, adding that he would welcome a sales tax to ease the budget strain.

The Legislature agreed on a higher education bill in May that gave the University $1.1 billion for the 2003-04 and 2004-05 school years, representing a $195 million decrease from the previous biennium.

The tuition increases for this school year and the next will make up for 50 percent of the cuts.

Pappas said a united effort from public and private higher education advocates would help convince legislators to put more money into the state’s colleges and universities.

Last year, private school supporters lobbied for more state grant money while state colleges and universities lobbied for more funding, she said. About $370 million was cut from state higher education and only $30 million was added to the grant pool, Pappas said.

Kierlin defended those allotments.

“We put some more money into financial aid, which we thought would benefit those most in need,” Kierlin said.

Pappas suggested as alternatives to lobbying that students work on a politician’s campaign and change policy from the inside. She also recommended they try convincing the business community to support higher education, and said well-educated students will lead to better-prepared employees.

“Education is being seen as more of a private good” than a public virtue, she said.

Asked by one student how much the University should charge for tuition, Pappas said she wishes things could be as they were when she graduated from the University without debt. Pappas said she paid $15 per credit and worked 20 hours per week with modest financial aid.

For students willing to fight for a debt-free graduation, Pappas said, “There’s power in numbers.

“We’re willing to raise taxes but it’s not enough to offer (budget) amendments; you want to win them,” she said. “But for that we need public outcry.”