Little compromise reached on funding request

Chris Vetter

After 13 hours of debate, the University is hardly closer to learning how much money it will receive for the 1998-99 biennium.
The Legislature’s higher education conference committee met throughout the entire day Wednesday to discuss language differences between the House and Senate versions of the bill.
The Senate members offered a compromise funding measure late in the evening that appeared quite similar to the original Senate bill. The measure did not reduce the $61 million increase for the Higher Education Services Office, and only increased the University’s share from $132 million to $136 million. The House members rejected the proposal. The House bill gives the University a $171 million increase.
Generally, the House operates on the premise that giving more money to the college and university systems in the state will keep tuition low and maintain or improve levels of quality for students. However, the Senate strives to give more money directly to lower-income students as financial aid.
The committee will meet again today, but neither the House or Senate has wavered from their original positions.
Although they didn’t agree on final allocations for the bill, the members still had a somewhat busy day.
Senate members agreed to drop their request to add performance measures to the compromise bill, which would have required the University to prove it improved in certain categories to receive all its funding.
Another important language change deleted the requirement that the University buy new technology to ward off “year 2000” problems.
Earlier in the day, the committee received a letter from Gov. Arne Carlson, stating he prefers the House funding levels for the individual higher education systems but believes the committee is still spending too much money on the entire funding package.
“First and foremost, maintaining a structurally balanced budget is this administration’s number one concern,” the letter states. “As they currently exist, the House and Senate bills spend significantly more than the governor’s recommendation for higher education and must be trimmed to meet the administration’s budget targets.”
Currently, the conference committee’s funding target is about $64 million above Carlson’s funding proposal.
In the letter, Carlson stated that the Senate version did not help enough students.
“Large increases in financial aid do not benefit all students,” the letter states. “The additional $41 million (in the Senate bill for financial aid) targets only a specific segment of the student population, leaving out many others who also deserve the choice of attending a quality post-secondary institution.”
Carlson also stated he preferred the House’s position on EdVest, which would be open to all students regardless of income.
EdVest is a savings account plan for parents to save for their children’s college education. The House version provides a 15 percent matching fund from the state for every dollar put into the account.
The Senate version only matches 15 percent for families earning less than $50,000. Families earning between $50,000 and $80,000 would be eligible for a 5 percent match from the state and families with income levels above $80,000 would not be eligible for the savings account.
As they now stand, the House bill spends $6.7 million on EdVest and the Senate version gives $3.6 million to the program.
Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Thief River Falls, said the Senate bill helps families more by focusing on lower-income students.
“Families over $80,000 (income) have better investment opportunities,” Stumpf said. “They will be saving money anyway.”