Outlook for full budget request grim

Coralie Carlson

University supporters need a new budget legislation slogan, because key lawmakers say “249” is out of the picture.
Dealt cuts in both the Senate last week and an instrumental House committee early Wednesday, legislators say it will be difficult to grant the University’s $249 million request for building construction and renovations.
“I’m sure that’s out,” said Rep. Henry Kalis, DFL-Walters, who chairs the Capital Investment Committee.
In a meeting that ran shortly past midnight, Kalis’ committee earmarked $114.74 million to the University in an almost $1 billion statewide bonding bill. The appropriation — less than half of the University’s request — falls below what committee members granted the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.
Enrollment played a part in the committee’s decision. MnSCU, which came away with $123.7 million, serves 145,000 students. The University has almost 50,000 students.
One of University President Mark Yudof’s prized projects, the $70 million Molecular and Cellular Biology building, was scrapped. Legislators also cut a St. Paul campus biology complex and reduced the price tags on other planned renovations.
But Gov. Arne Carlson, who has been watching from the sidelines since endorsing Yudof’s request last fall, is still on the mind of legislators. Rep. Steve Trimble, DFL-St. Paul, predicted Carlson would “ram a lot of this stuff down our throat.”
Few predicted, however, that the governor could muster enough support to salvage the entire package.
“It’s probably safe to say that 249 will not come out of this bill,” said Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona.
The Senate funded 68 percent of the school’s request, which could serve as the high-water mark for a conference committee.
Part of the reason for the House’s deletion, Kalis said, was the fact that the University’s full plate of construction projects will need more than two years to complete. Therefore, the school would be better off spreading its requests over time, Kalis said.
Richard Pfutzenreuter, vice president of Budget and Finance, saw the bad news coming. Before the late-night meeting, he braced for potential cuts from weary committee members.
“I don’t think you should have been asking for 249 to begin with,” Trimble said. “It’s a big chunk of cheese to swallow all in one bite.”
Trimble said the University’s big project wish list was a little too long. Yudof had also requested $53.6 million to transform Walter Library into a digital technology center. “We felt we should only do one,” Trimble said.
The committee partially funded construction for the Walter Digital Library, the Architecture building and Ford and Murphy halls.
But committee members revealed reservations about the direction a new cellular and molecular biology building would take the University. Kalis said the next big breakthrough in science will come in agricultural areas and a new biology building should be on the St. Paul campus near the plant and animal science departments. “Maybe it shouldn’t be tied to medicine and health,” he said.
While the University’s cut might seem paltry compared to the much-promoted $249 million request, the bill gives the school more money than in the past. University portions of bonding bills ranged from $60 million to $80 million since 1990.
Committee members stressed that these dollar figures are not set in stone either. The budget request’s next stop was a House Ways and Means Committee meeting Wednesday night.
“We’re quite a ways from a final bill,” said David Bishop, R-Rochester.