Legislators hold late-night session to determine budget solutions for U

by Emily Johns

With the end of their session two weeks away, legislators met at the Capitol late Thursday to iron out differences on University funding.

Bringing tired eyes and stern voices, 10 legislators from the House and Senate met in a conference committee to hash out disagreements in their higher education omnibus bills.

The House bill restructures the Minnesota Higher Education Services Office and gives the governor power to appoint its director. It also adds two students – limited to a two-year term – to the Regent Candidate Advisory Council.

The Senate bill includes provisions forbidding schools from selling student information to credit card companies and prohibiting those companies from marketing on college and university campuses across the state. The University currently prohibits the companies from marketing on campus.

Both bills include provisions requiring schools to send incoming students health information about meningococcal meningitis, eliminate state grant money from students convicted of rioting and require that such students pay the highest tuition rate available, including out of state.

University President Robert Bruininks told committee members the University recognizes the budget problems the state faces, but he said the Legislature should keep a strong investment in higher education.

“The entire state understands the kind of challenge we face, so it’s a very daunting task,” Bruininks said. “These cuts are extraordinarily severe.”

Bruininks said the University has started planning its budget for the next school year based on projections from Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s recommendations. Based on Pawlenty’s proposed budget, the University would be required to lay off 1,800 employees or raise tuition 30 percent to balance its budget for 2004.

Bruininks said he recommended regents cut 525 faculty and staff positions and raise tuition approximately 15 percent.

“If we’re not careful, we are

basically going to convert what I believe is one of the finest public education systems in the country into second-rate status,” Bruininks said.

Bruininks said he would love to encourage the Legislature to invest as much in education as possible, but he realizes it is not necessarily feasible.

Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, challenged Bruininks, saying the University and the regents should not simply ask the Legislature for more money without proposing where the money should come from.

Sen. Sandra Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, has apologized several times about the way the Senate higher education omnibus bill turned out – making drastic cuts to University funding in the midst of larger state-wide budget cuts.

Conference committee discussions were difficult and heated, as legislators are unwilling and hesitant to compromise the University’s quality because of budget disputes.

“I don’t think we should cut the ‘U’ at all,” Pappas said. “I think we should be investing more in higher education. This is the time to invest in research that helps move the economy and to invest in our future work force.”

The committee had not reached any decisions as of press time.

“We recognize the tuition increases – there is going to have to be changes in the way we fund our programs,” said Rep. Doug Stang, R-Cold Spring.