U’s finance committee collapses

by Brian Bakst

When University officials pitch their case to the Legislature for higher funding next year, there won’t be a separate subcommittee to sift through the budget request.
Under new committee alignments announced by incoming House Speaker Phil Carruthers, DFL-Brooklyn Park, the short-lived University of Minnesota Finance Division will be consolidated with the general Higher Education Finance Division. The University will once again have its request considered along with all other colleges in the state.
Whether this will affect funding for the University remains open to debate.
Former Speaker Irv Anderson, DFL-International Falls, created the separate divisions at the beginning of the 79th legislative session in 1995. Rep. Becky Kelso, DFL-Shakopee, chaired the division for two years before requesting reassignment Monday. Kelso and Carruthers said Anderson’s experiment didn’t work, and it was a time for a change.
“We believe that, in order to adequately deal with higher education, we have to look at it as a system and not just be thinking about its separate constituent units,” Carruthers said.
The nine-member finance division was the first legislative body to evaluate the University’s funding request two years ago. Also, when the University put in a request for a special $25 million appropriation for the Academic Health Center last year, it had to go through the division first.
University Vice President for Budget and Finance Richard Pfutzenreuter said the old system was beneficial to the University because the small group allowed certain legislators to focus on understanding the University’s needs. But he said this was also a disadvantage because few lawmakers had extensive knowledge of the budget request when it came time to vote.
“There are pluses and minuses,” he said. “I don’t consider it a pivotal issue if it’s one way or another.”
One drawback might be that the request will be considered alongside that of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.
Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said the University shouldn’t be classified with other institutions. He said the school is in “a league of its own” in terms of state funding, so it should receive special attention.
“It’s not realistic to expect MnSCU and the University not to compete for funding,” said Marvin Marshak, senior vice president for Academic Affairs.
Limmer, who is a former University finance division member, said the arrangement held the University accountable because division members could focus on details of the University’s requests. “I think it’s better for the taxpayers,” he said.
The Senate has always had a unified higher education finance committee.
Rep. Gene Pelowski, Jr., DFL-Winona, will head the new finance division when the Legislature convenes Jan. 7. The six-time incumbent is very knowledgeable about technology and higher education, Carruthers said.