Republican-majority Legislature spurs questions about U’s funding future

Some lawmakers question whether the new Republican-majority legislature will prioritize University of Minnesota funding requests.

Ryan Faircloth

With Republicans snatching control of the Minnesota House and Senate earlier this month, some lawmakers think the shift could impact state funding for the University of Minnesota.

Republicans anticipate a much smoother process to approve funding in the upcoming session for HEAPR and say it is possible the funding amount the University receives will change little from past years. But DFL lawmakers say past opposition from conservative lawmakers signals a priority change.

Since 1971, a conservative party has controlled both the House and the Senate twice — once in 2011, and again this election.

Sen. Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, the newly-appointed chair of the Senate’s higher education committee, said she will closely examine the University’s funding to see which requests are necessary.

Fischbach said she’s unsure how much state funding the University will receive in the upcoming session, but HEAPR requests should be prioritized over new buildings proposals.

The school hasn’t shared past specifics about where state funding dollars are allocated, and it should be a more transparent process, she said.

“We need to take a hard look every time there are requests,” she said.

Last session, the University requested roughly $236 million in state funding to pay for new projects and building maintenance.

The Senate proposed $160.7 million for University funding at the time, while the House proposed $65.8 million. No agreement was reached on the bonding bill before the session concluded, leaving the University with no funding.

Soon-to-be former House minority leader, Rep. Paul Thissen, DFL-Minneapolis, said he believes Senate Republicans will lower funding suggestions to mirror the House.

“It’ll be more the Governor who is the outlier … in terms of funding for things like higher education,” he said.

Sen. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka, disagreed, and said Republicans care as much as Democrats when it comes to investing in the University, adding that the school is the “flagship institution in the state.”

Bonding and HEAPR funding for the University won’t differ much with a Republican-majority, Abeler said, and having Senate and House leaders from the same political party could help boost legislative productivity.

“It may actually lend more chance to come up with an agreement,” he said.

Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester said funding will be more stable and “less prone to games and gimmicks.”

Nelson pointed to the end of the last session as an example of how a Republican-majority will end the division between state lawmakers.

“The bonding bill … including HEAPR and the projects would’ve already been signed into law,” she said.

Rep. Gene Pelowski Jr., DFL-Winona, said he doesn’t expect House Republicans to prioritize the University in the upcoming session since they didn’t make an effort last year.

“It was not an agenda item for at least the Republican majority in the House to fund higher education,” he said.

And this is unlikely to change, Pelowski said, since Republicans gained legislative seats in this year’s election without fulfilling higher education budget requests.

Thissen said the way Republicans fund state infrastructure may be problematic, since they will likely pay for transportation with the state’s general fund, which could shrink the amount of education money available.

Sen. Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, said he’s unsure whether University funding requests will change, but is “pessimistic.”

“Last year … and this year, [we] ran into some real opposition from senior Republicans in terms of the University of Minnesota,” he said, adding that some lawmakers thought the University is well-off and doesn’t require funding.

Abeler said part of the responsibility of HEAPR funding lies with the University. “The U is all about future planning, and maybe somehow when we build a building, we need to be throwing money in for the deferred maintenance of it.”

Focusing on having functional University buildings, he said, could help pay for new projects or HEAPR maintenance down the line.

“You can save $10 million on a building,” he said. “That adds up after a while to … another free building.”