Higher ed advocates pack Senate hearing

Students and faculty touted the importance of the higher education programs.

by Emily Johns

Concerned Minnesota college students and faculty packed a State Capitol meeting room Thursday asking lawmakers to remember the importance of the state’s colleges and universities during this session’s budget battle.

Their requests come two days after Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s budget proposal recommended a $254 million higher education funding reduction.

“I’m 44 years old, and last year I paid off my last college loan,” said Darrell Downs, a Winona State University political science professor testifying before the Senate’s Higher Education Budget Division.

Downs said state aid is important to help students finance their educations.

“We educate the working classes of Minnesota,” Downs said.

With the large number of nontraditional students attending Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system schools, “a few hundred dollars can make a large difference,” he said.

JoAnn Roche, Minnesota State College Faculty co-vice president, said two-year institutions are valuable to Minnesota.

An English professor at Mesabi Range Community and Technical College, Roche said “two-year colleges are part of the solution to Minnesota’s economic downturn.”

When many Iron Range workers lost their jobs in the last few years, she said, enrollment in her school skyrocketed. The school provided a support system for the community and people without jobs, Roche added.

“We have the capacity to turn people’s lives around very quickly,” Roche said. “The two-year colleges scattered around the state provide a rapid-response team to the job loss associated with the economic downturn.”

By the numbers

Susan Heegaard from the governor’s office and Finance Department executive budget officer Heather Johnston said Pawlenty is recommending a 14.6 percent reduction in state spending on higher education.

Heegaard said reductions in higher education spending are consistent with reductions in other state budget areas.

“Most state agencies are getting a 15 percent reduction,” Heegaard said.

Pawlenty’s budget proposal reduces the University’s operating budget $179 million for the 2004-05 biennium.

The proposal also requests the University freeze all employee salaries and benefits while limiting tuition increases to 15 percent annually.

Sen. Bob Kierlin, R-Winona, asked Johnston how much more revenue the University would have to produce to keep the tuition increase less than 15 percent annually while dealing with the budget cuts.

Johnston said the governor’s office had not done that research yet.

Downs said higher education spending represents 9.1 percent of the state’s $28 billion general fund budget, down from 15 percent of the state’s spending in 1987.

The budget proposal also gives the University’s Academic Health Center revenues from an existing 6.5 cent-per-pack cigarette tax, an estimated $42.9 million dollars in the 2004-05 biennium.

Currently, 4.5 cents of the tax goes into the state’s general fund and 2 cents to the future resource fund, Johnston said.

Roche said the committee should find creative means to deal with the budget shortfall instead of simply cutting programs.

“There is a limit to what colleges can do with ever-diminishing resources. Access and affordability are vital in tough times,” she said. “Ö Will someone here please have the courage to say that this isn’t working?”

Emily Johns welcomes comments at [email protected]