Senate stingy with U

Chris Vetter

University officials were dumbfounded Friday after the Senate Higher Education Committee completed its appropriations bill, which would give the University much less state funding than officials expected.
“When the Red Cross called Monday and asked me to donate, I should have seen it as an omen,” said Richard Pfutzenreuter, vice president of the Office of Budget and Finance. “Today, the Senate took some blood out of us. No warning, no explanation. At least the blood bank called first.”
The committee’s funding bill, which includes money for all state-funded higher education, would give the University an increase of $124.5 million above its current biennial budget. However, this funding level is far below the University’s request of a $230 million increase.
The bill would provide less funding for the University than what Gov. Arne Carlson outlined in his budget in January and February. Carlson’s final proposal called for a $145.8 million increase for the University over the next two years, $21 million more than the bill provides.
The University was the only higher education system that was funded at a lower level by the committee than what was laid out in the governor’s plan. The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system is slated for about $17 million more than what Carlson suggested.
In addition, the committee almost fully funded the request of the state’s Higher Education Services Office, which provides student aid to lower-income families.
Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, said the office was seen as a top priority by the legislators. “I think we had a feeling that we were falling behind in not allowing poorer students from modest-income families access to higher education,” Kelley said.
The Legislature doesn’t always meet the governor’s recommendations, but University officials expected that lawmakers would do so this year.
“We had hoped that the governor’s proposal would be a minimum, and we would get more than that,” said Marvin Marshak, senior vice president for Academic Affairs.
In its suggestions for how to spend the $124.5 million, the committee earmarked no additional funding for faculty compensation, which was one of the key points of the University’s budget request. But, because the University has autonomy over its affairs, it does not have to follow the point-by-point proposal of the committee.
“We will spend very differently than the Senate proposes,” Pfutzenreuter said. “Salaries will go up. Our faculty needs proper compensation.”
Legislators on the committee had praised the University’s commitment to boosting faculty salaries and improving technology on campus during the school’s budget presentation, a fact that made the bill so surprising.
Pfutzenreuter said he was disappointed because the University has also moved in a positive direction by increasing graduation rates and drawing more freshmen from the top quarter of their high school classes. These points were among the five performance indicators the Legislature asked the University to focus on two years ago.
“We did what they told us to do, and our reward appears to be a reduction of state funding,” he said.
The funding bill moves to the Children, Families and Learning Committee today, where it is doubtful that any changes will be made.
The House Higher Education Committee will begin drafting its funding bill Wednesday, and will likely finish Friday. Marshak said he believes the House will give the University more than the Senate, though he believes the Senate might still provide additional funding, thanks to the projected $2.3 billion state surplus this year.
“We are still hopeful, but we took a setback (last) week,” Marshak said.
Any differences in the House and Senate versions will be worked out in a conference committee before heading to the governor’s desk.
Although there is still a chance the University would receive additional dollars, Pfutzenreuter said the low level of funding is not good news for the University.
“It is unclear what this means for the University’s goals to improve quality and keep tuition low.”