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Legislators: U, union must prioritize

As the strike continues, state representatives are debating whether the University’s woes are a result of state budget cuts.

State Rep. Gene Pelowski, D-Winona, the lead Democrat on the Higher

Education Finance Committee, said the strike is undoubtedly a result of budget cuts.

“This is the single biggest cut that the University has ever faced,” Pelowski said.

Facing a deficit of more than $4 billion, the Legislature cut $185 million from the University’s 2004-05 operating budget during its last session.

Despite this, other representatives said blaming the state was unfair.

State Rep. Frank Hornstein, D-Minneapolis, said the cuts contributed to the strike, but other issues also come into play.

He said limited University resources combined with the University’s budgeting problems are key factors that led to the strike.

“The University is spending money on various things that there is just not money for,” Hornstein said.

Sen. Yvonne Prettner Solon, D-Duluth, and vice chair of the Higher Education Budget Division, said she would campaign to restore funding.

“I will lead the fight to find additional financial resources for higher education and to help to alleviate the pressures faced by these institutions,” Solon said.

She said the strike is a direct result of the cuts.

But state Rep. Chris Gerlach, R-Apple Valley, said blaming the strike on budget cuts is unfair. He said everything in the state suffered and cuts are inescapable.

“If (the University) thinks the downfall of the economy is not going to affect them, then they are living in a fantasy world,” Gerlach said.

Hornstein said he believes the strike is legitimate, but he does not support restoring state funding to the University.

“I am not optimistic that cuts will be restored next time around,” Hornstein said. “We’ll have the same players in February who made the budget cuts last time, so there’s not going to be a whole lot of change.”

Gerlach said he questioned whether this particular strike will have a major impact on the House when it meets in February.

He said because of the number of union members crossing the picket lines, he is uncertain if they are taking the strike seriously enough.

Instead of waiting for more money, the University should prioritize its current budget, Gerlach said.

“When you have a budget deficit, everything becomes a matter of priorities,” Gerlach said. “The University needs to decide what the core functions of their institution are. Some things will have to be let go.”

Pelowski said because of the budget crisis, both sides will lose.

“The University will lose because the strike is hurting the value of the University,” Pelowski said. “And the strikers are losing wages. This is the situation that the budget has gotten us in.”

But Gerlach said union members should remember their benefits packages are attractive compared to those in the private sectors.

“Everyone knows that when you’re an employee of the government, you have good benefits,” Gerlach said. “The risk is not there, as it is in private sectors.”

Gov. Tim Pawlenty did not return calls for comment.

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