Lawmakers busy while University vacationed

Spring break showed the University no reprieve from important events. Vacation news will no doubt be the talk of campus this week. Students in professor August Nimtz’s Political Science 5478 class on African politics will want to discuss President Bill Clinton’s recent trip to that continent. In tomorrow’s first session of Sociology 3102 — criminal behavior — professor Candace Kruttschnitt will probably field questions about the Jonesboro, Ark., school massacre. And students in this morning’s History 5266 lecture on modern Russia should take time to grill professor Theofanis Stavrou on the implications of Boris Yeltsin’s firing of his own government.
But no news from last week is as critical to the University community as the story of what lawmakers have done in St. Paul and in Washington, D.C. Legislators on both capitol hills have been busy, and their work will directly affect the lives of every member of the University community. At the federal level, two important bills advanced toward floor votes. The most significant for most students is the Higher Education Reauthorization Act, which includes changes to student loans and Pell grants. The bad news is that some lawmakers, backed by banking industry lobbyists, want to prevent student loan interest rates from dropping to the scheduled 6.9 percent in June. At the moment, Congress and the White House haven’t reached any agreement on whether to keep rates at the current 8.2 percent indefinitely.
Secondly, Congress is close to authorizing national transportation funding that includes seed money for a Twin Cities light-rail line. The federal money is needed for the state to leverage a roughly $50 million investment and begin work on a rail system that would take riders from the West Bank to the Mall of America by way of downtown, Hiawatha Avenue. and the airport. The final details at the state level are being worked out in conference committee, but the package is all but sure to pass. The rail line, which could be running by 2003, is good news for the University’s 50,000 or so daily commuters.
But most importantly the Legislature is nearing a final vote on the University’s capital funding request. University President Mark Yudof asked for an unprecedented $249 million in state building funds, but got Minnesota residents from the governor’s mansion to local union halls behind him. The conference committee is reconciling a $57 million gap between House and Senate bills, neither of which offers full funding for the University. Yudof spent Friday facing the committee, whose members demanded his help performing triage on the request. Until last week, Yudof had wisely avoided choosing among programs. Each funding item in the $249 million request is necessary and long overdue, and ranking them amounts to a Sophie’s choice.
So transit is clearly a win for the University. But student loan interest rates and the University’s capital request still hang in the balance. There is still a little time to make the University’s voice heard on these critical issues. Check out the Student Legislative Coalition’s World Wide Web site at www.tc.umn.edu/~slc for more information on who to contact and how. Vacation is over, and it’s time for all of us to stop letting the news pass us by.