U bill passes house

In the bill: $169 million for the University and a tuition freeze for MNSCU.

by Courtney Blanchard

In a rush to pass its finance bills last week, the House approved a bill providing University funding and a few other surprises.

The House passed its higher education omnibus bill Thursday after almost four hours of debate.

The bill includes about $169 million for the University, an amount that University Chief Financial Officer Richard Pfutzenreuter said will allow next year’s tuition to go up by the smallest amount in years.

“The House bill is a very strong level of funding,” he said. “We’ll be able to lower tuition increases.”

Pfutzenreuter said University officials originally planned to increase tuition by 4 or 5 percent next year, but under the House figures, tuition could increase by only 2 percent for Minnesota resident undergraduates.

But that’s dependant on the next phase of the bill. Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty has pledged to veto the bill because it includes the Dream Act, a proposal to allow undocumented high school graduates access to Minnesota resident tuition rates.

Rep. Dan Severson, R-Sauk Rapids, said the measure would compromise federal immigration policy.

“This goes to the security of all 50 states,” he said.

Despite a proposed amendment to take the measure out of the bill, lawmakers voted to keep it.

Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, said the measure will give students who don’t have control over their situation a chance for a better life.

“These are kids who were brought over by their parents. It wasn’t their choice,” he said.

Lawmakers deliberated how much money to provide for the GI Bill and whether to double funding for the University and Mayo Clinic partnership.

One surprise amendment included a tuition freeze for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system, a measure that students had been advocating for this session.

If the law passes with the tuition freeze, MnSCU students would be charged a flat rate for tuition starting their second year of school in a four-year institution, according to committee administrator Jim Gelbmann.

Rep. Kathy Brynaert, DFL- Mankato, said students in her district had lobbied for a tuition freeze funded by the state, not the university.

“They did not want a tuition freeze at the expense of the MnSCU budget, because they were working collaboratively over a long period of time to create a partnership with the University, so that the quality of the institution would not suffer in order to achieve the tuition freeze,” she said.

Rep. Tony Cornish, R-Good Thunder, said students can’t wait any longer for a tuition freeze, whether state money is used or not.

“They don’t trust the universities to keep the tuition down,” he said. “There’s no guarantee when you give these colleges money that they’re going to keep tuition down.”

However, the University of Minnesota system would not be affected by a tuition freeze, because the Board of Regents has the authority to set tuition, not the state.

“We’re autonomous, so they can’t impose that on us,” Pfutzenreuter said. “Frankly, the President (Bob Bruininks) wouldn’t welcome such an approach.”

Next week, a conference committee of the House and Senate is expected to convene and combine their versions of the omnibus bill into one, which must again pass both houses before going to the governor.