U vies for state funds

by Chris Vetter

As the state Legislature opens today, both legislators and University officials are gearing up for the fight to decide how much state money the University will receive this session.
The University’s chances of obtaining its $580 million biennial budget request from the Legislature improved in the past few months with: the announcement of the state’s large revenue surplus, election results that saw Democrats retain control of both houses, and the election of new House speaker Phil Carruthers.
The University received about $497 million from the state last year, although $36 million was a designated one-time amount. This year’s request represents a 17 percent increase, but calls for the University to raise an additional $115.5 million in new revenues over the next four years.
The budget request equalizes the University’s and the Legislature’s burdens, with each side paying 47 percent of the total budget, while tuition would account for the remaining 6 percent. Currently, the University pays for 45 percent of the University budget, the Legislature 39 percent, and tuition 16 percent.
University President Nils Hasselmo said the state must provide more funds for the University.
“Just as the University must be accountable and make changes, the public and the Legislature must now make a strong investment in the University,” Hasselmo said in his October State of the University address.
Marvin Marshak, senior vice president for Academic Affairs, said the budget request is a sensible price for the state to pay for the University.
“We believe the biannual budget is a reasonable estimate of what it will take to get the level of education that this state wants and needs,” Marshak said.
A high funding level is needed to meet the goals of the University, such as University 2000, said Donna Peterson, director of state relations at the University.
“We are asking for what we need, not what we think we can get,” Peterson said. “The Legislature must make this investment so the University can continue moving in the right direction.”
State funding has dropped as a percent of the state budget over the past 10 years, causing tuition to skyrocket, said Elizabeth Eull, on staff at the University’s office of budget.
“Higher education (funding) in total is trending downward,” Eull said.
Some officials have raised concerns that legislators simply see the University as another hungry mouth to feed.
“There has been an affirmative decision to fund other parts of the state budget,” Peterson said.
In an editorial that appeared in the Star Tribune, journalism professor Don Gillmor states that funding by the Legislature has dropped for several years.
“State support for the University of Minnesota has plummeted in the past four decades,” Gillmor wrote. “In the 1950s, it was about 12 percent of total state appropriations. By 1995, it had dropped to 3.5 percent.”
More state funding is needed to hold down tuition costs, adequately pay faculty and staff and to upgrade buildings and technology, Peterson said.
“We need new technology,” Peterson said. “New wiring and computer systems have to be put into place.”
She also said faculty pay rates are falling behind those at other research institutions in the United States.
Gillmor’s article states that faculty will not want to work at the University because of stagnant wages.
“In the (last two year) period, faculty salaries remained flat, meaning that for most faculty, real income has declined,” Gillmor said.
“Few (faculty members) are enthusiastic about working in what appears to be a pilotless and outcast institution where talent is no longer rewarded.”
Administrators hope to improve pay conditions by gaining a piece of the large surplus this year, estimated at $1.4 billion dollars.
Gov. Arne Carlson outlined a proposal Nov. 26 for dividing the surplus into tax rebates, money for the state reserve and increased educational funding. Primary and secondary education would receive $305 million from the surplus funds.
Richard Pfutzenreuter, vice president of the University’s Budget and Finance, said the large state surplus is a favorable sign for the University. Administrators, however, have been optimistic about the budget since they started putting it together, he said.
“Whether there was a surplus or not, we would have put this request in,” Pfutzenreuter said.
The University is not the only college system with a request asking for increased funds from the state. The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system is requesting a 14 percent increase from the Legislature. MnSCU is comprised of 54 state colleges, technical schools and community colleges.
MnSCU is requesting $1.04 billion in state funding and is in direct competition with the University for state dollars.
A governor’s advisory board suggested the University and MnSCU merge and be placed under one board, but no formal proposal to do so has been made.
Both MnSCU and University administrators stand to benefit from Democratic control of the House and the Senate, said political analyst D.J. Leary. He said Democrats in the state have always supported the University’s budget more than state Republicans.
The Democratic control of the House is a bonus for the University because many Republicans and state politicians predicted a Republican takeover in last year’s elections. The Republicans needed to gain four seats to win the state House, but the Democrats held control of the state House by defeating four incumbent Republicans and maintaining other open seats.
Eull said the University is working to win over new legislators to vote for increased funding. Legislators have been invited to come to the University for a tour to help them understand the cost of running such a large institution.
“New legislators come over and meet the University because this place is so large and complex,” Eull said. “It gives them a completely different insight.”
New legislators will also have a new Speaker of the House. Members elected Rep. Phil Carruthers, DFL-Brooklyn Center, in December to the position. Carruthers replaced Rep. Irv Anderson, DFL-International Falls.
Carruthers, who received degrees in political science and law from the University, said improving the University is a high priority.
“Lean budgets from the state, each of the past few years, have caused a higher tuition burden on the students,” Carruthers said. “We need to put more (state) resources into education.”
Political analyst Sarah Janecek said Carruthers’ victory as the new speaker will definitely benefit the University.
“Certainly the election of Phil Carruthers to speaker is great news for the University,” Janecek said. “He is more inclined to give the (budget request) a good hard look.”
Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, who represents the University’s Minneapolis campus, agreed that the University has a better chance of receiving the funding.
“I think (Carruthers) will be a very good choice for the University,” Kahn said. “He is someone who understands the benefits of higher education.”
Carruthers said the University serves a unique role as a research and teaching institution, and deserves the funding.
Despite Carruthers’ favorable stance on University funding, the budget still faces an uphill climb. Even though both Houses are controlled by the Democrats, they will need Republican help to pass the University’s budget. House minority leader Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, said the University’s budget request is too high.
“I certainly recognize the need for increased funding,” Sviggum said. “But a 17 percent increase is a healthy increase.”
Senate majority leader Roger Moe, DFL-Erskine, agreed with Sviggum, saying the budget increase is too high and will probably not be met. However, he said the University has a good case for wanting more state funding.
Leary said the University shouldn’t be disappointed if the $580 million figure is not ratified.
“I would be very surprised if anyone’s budget is fully met,” Leary said.
Regardless of how much funding the Legislature allots, it still must be approved by Gov. Carlson. Brian Dietz, communications director for the governor, said Carlson will outline his budget recommendations in late January. Dietz said funding for the University will be difficult to predict until that time.
Marshak said it is difficult to tell what parts of the University would not be funded if the budget request is not met.
“Cutbacks will be best decided when the Legislature determines how much funding we get,” Marshak said.
Carruthers said the University needs more funding so that damaging cuts aren’t necessary.
“I respect the institution,” Carruthers said. “We need a strong University.”