Pawlenty unveils task force to evaluate state higher ed

The commission will be formed by the Citizens League, an independent policy analysis group.

Stephanie Kudrle

In his State of the State address Thursday at the Capitol, Gov. Tim Pawlenty said it was time to “strategically rethink” higher education’s future.

This statement comes after Pawlenty’s capital bonding bill, which includes large cuts to the University’s request, drew ire from University supporters and University President Bob Bruininks.

During his speech, Pawlenty said the Citizens League, an independent organization that helps evaluate public policy, will form a commission to analyze higher education programs

He also highlighted health care, employment and public safety as important issues in his speech.

Bruininks said Pawlenty had mentioned an interest in appointing a task force. However, he said the University had not received many details on the project.

At least three task forces have studied higher education in the past, Bruininks said. But it has not been studied since before former Gov. Jesse Ventura took office six years ago.

Bruininks said he was not nervous about the task force and added if the issue is looked at in a “fair-minded” way, it might benefit the University.

“I believe the future of higher education is critically important to Minnesota,” he said. “We need to address it if we want to keep the economy strong.”

Some legislators were concerned the governor did not address higher education in more depth.

Rep. Lyndon Carlson, DFL-Crystal, said he challenges the governor on his “no new tax increases” platform.

Throughout his speech, Pawlenty said last year’s budget had been balanced without raising taxes.

But Carlson said the state cut the University’s operational funding to help balance last year’s budget, and that tuition increased dramatically for students this semester and will continue to rise as a result.

“It’s not an accurate portrayal of what happened,” Carlson said. “Increasing tuition is just the same as increasing taxes in my mind.”

Bruininks agreed and said last year’s budget cuts affected everyone at the University.

The University cut jobs, increased tuition 29 percent over two years and had to reduce programs, he said.

Higher education committees will look at the University’s capital bonding request again this session. But Rep. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, said that because the governor already set his proposal for the University, it will be difficult for the Republican-led House to approve more.

“We might go a little above,” she said. “But we have to really question what’s in the bill.”

Pawlenty also asked the Legislature to support a bonding bill to fund a biogenomics research partnership between the University and Mayo Clinic.

“We need to leverage our strategic advantage in the emerging bioscience economy,” Pawlenty said. “This is a huge opportunity, and we can compete and win in this area.”

Pawlenty also outlined his agenda for the new legislative session and rejoiced in successes of last year during his speech. Health care, employment and public safety were at the top of his list this session.

Medical costs and insurance rates are too high, Pawlenty said, and he pointed to online prescription drugs from Canada as a solution.

In addition to health care, Pawlenty said Minnesota needs to be more “job friendly.”

He said it is important to re-examine the way companies are taxed for creating new job positions and not increase taxes.

Pawlenty also discussed capital punishment and longer sentences for sex offenders.

He noted University of North Dakota student Dru Sjodin’s disappearance and said that sex offenders need stricter punishments.

He also said Minnesotans should vote on whether to reinstate the death penalty.

“The punishment needs to fit the crime,” Pawlenty said.