House offers tuition boost

Committees debated a bill that would minimize a University tuition hike next year.

by Courtney Blanchard

If the House version of the higher education bill passes, tuition could increase by 2 percent next year, the lowest increase so far in the session, and maybe not at all in 2009.

With an apple on his desk, Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, and committee members, worked Wednesday evening to pass amendments to the higher education bill, which would provide nearly the full University request for funds. The Senate passed a bill last week that was short of the University’s request by almost $42 million.

The House measure would give the University about $169 million of its $182 million request. Lawmakers passed an amendment for another $12.4 million in 2009 to be used exclusively for reducing tuition.

“We’re pretty close on both institution requests,” said Rukavina, chair of the House Higher Education and Work Force Development Policy and Finance Division Committee, of the University and the Minnesota State Colleges’ requests.

Rukavina passed the amendment Wednesday, saying the money would be revoked if the Board of Regents didn’t use it for that purpose.

The bill would also allocate $38 million for a bioscience partnership between the University and the Mayo Clinic.

“This puts us on the bioscience ‘autobahn,’ ” said Rep. Tim Mahoney, DFL-St. Paul, at a press conference Tuesday. “We want to maintain leadership in cutting-edge technology.”

University Chief Financial Officer Richard Pfutzenreuter said with the numbers added up, the University is only short about $15 million of its request.

“But inside those numbers, the divisions are creative,” he said.

Pfutzenreuter said money is set aside for specific directions. One provision would equalize tuition at all University campuses and could lower tuition at the Morris campus permanently by $1,000 per year.

The other provision would create a scholarship fund for middle-income students from Minnesota. The University would have to contribute two dollars from non-state money for every one the state kicks in.

Those programs would probably decrease the projected 4.5 percent tuition increase, Pfutzenreuter said.

“We’re pleased with the overall framework of the bill,” he said, adding that he wasn’t sure if the additional $12.4 million for tuition reduction would be necessary, or how other programs would be affected by the specific allocations.

Similar to the Senate version, lawmakers took issue with funding the state GI Bill and voted to funnel more money into the program.

The original bill included $7 million for the program, a fraction of Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s suggestion of $30 million.

“I think it’s the responsibility of the federal government to take care of our GIs,” Rukavina said.

Nevertheless, the amendment passed, matching the Senate’s version for $10 million.

Lawmakers also voted to include the Dream Act, which would allow undocumented students who attended a Minnesota high school for three years to be eligible for in-state tuition rates.

The debate grew intense as committee members argued over the proper route to citizenship and the right to attend college.

Rep. Dan Severson, R-Sauk Rapids, suggested that undocumented students could gain legal status by joining the military.

“There’s other people we need to consider – those are the people who have come into this process legally,” Severson said, “those who can’t have another venue through military.”

Rep. Kim Norton, DFL-Rochester, said immigrants shouldn’t be asked to go to war to gain citizenship.

Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls and ranking higher education minority member, cautioned that the governor could veto the entire bill if the Dream Act is included.

The discussion in committee coincided with University Lobby Day, in which students from around the state demonstrated at the Capitol for lower tuition and textbook costs.

Goldy Gopher snuck into the committee, standing against the wall, gesticulating and swaying his shoulders side to side before walking out during a banal discussion of a technical amendment.