House cuts less than Senate in U budget bill

Melanie Evans

Members of the House Higher Education Finance Division cast a vote of confidence Friday to proposals affecting University faculty members, a law clinic, and financial aid left reeling from a round of dramatic cuts in the Senate last week.
The unanimous vote in the House division carried the University’s supplemental budget request one step closer to reality.
“We did very little adjusting to either the numbers of the University or the language,” said Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona. “I think it’s a compliment to the University that this year they’ve come forward with excellent proposals.”
Unlike the $10 million cut made by their counterparts in the Senate, the House bill passed $3 million shy of the University’s $41.5 million bid.
“The Senate tries to be realistic in their appropriations,” said LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Thief River Falls, chairman of the Senate’s Higher Education Budget Division.
“We don’t throw money around. We try to address the needs presented,” he said, defending the Senate’s version of the bill, which passed unanimously Thursday.
Financial aid received top priority from the legislators. Students who receive assistance from work study or Pell Grants stand to gain from the House bill.
Committee members allocated an additional $1.5 million — not originally included in the University’s request — to work study funding.
The legislators also gave their endorsement to a new formula for allocating state grants. Under the bill, students who receive an increase in their Pell Grant won’t see any decline in the share of money they are awarded from the state.
As it stands, state awards to students fall proportionally as federal grants rise, leaving students with no overall addition to their financial aid.
Recurring funding supporting faculty and staff members emerged from the subcommittee with an additional $2 million, but the group cut dollars for classroom improvements and faculty equipment by about $5 million.
Funding for the University’s law clinic, which did not survive the Senate’s vote Feb. 11, came away Friday with $250,000 in recurring funds as well.
Although the University’s appropriations survived the subcommittee with few changes, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system’s request shifted under the weight of the representative’s priorities, said Doug Berg, the division’s fiscal analyst.
MnSCU’s request for funding equalization was almost doubled by the House — climbing from $12 million to $21.5 million.
However, money appropriated for MnSCU faculty and student initiatives received no funding, paring down the system’s request by $3 million.
The supplemental request still must clear the House’s Education and Ways and Means committees in the upcoming week before a full vote on the House floor.
Representatives expect few changes will be made to Friday’s bill and hope to eventually prevail over the Senate’s lower spending cap in the conference committee process.
“It’s about time the Senate raised its expectations,” Pelowski said.
An optimistic February financial forecast from the Governor’s office could allow leeway for a more flexible spending cap in the Senate, Stumpf said. Until that point the Senate will remain cautious, he added.