Q&A: Gov. Mark Dayton talks higher education, UMN funding

The Minnesota Daily spoke with Gov. Mark Dayton on Wednesday.

Gov. Mark Dayton answers questions during a press conference about Minnesota's budget at the Capitol in St. Paul on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017.

Ellen Schmidt

Gov. Mark Dayton answers questions during a press conference about Minnesota’s budget at the Capitol in St. Paul on Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017.

Ryan Faircloth

The Minnesota Daily spoke with Gov. Mark Dayton Wednesday about how higher education has fared in this year’s legislative session.

Dayton discussed the University of Minnesota’s budget request, the House and Senate higher education omnibus bills and the consequences of inadequate state college funding.

Overall, how does higher education funding stack up for you compared to your other priorities?

I have a number of priorities because Minnesota has a number of priorities, but higher education is certainly one of my very top priorities because … it’s so crucial to the future of our state. I think my funding proposals support that.

This year’s House and Senate [higher education] omnibus bills offer far less than what the University asked for in its $147.2 million request. The House bill would provide a $22 million increase while the Senate recommended $29.6 million. You proposed at the beginning of session a $96.8 million increase to the U’s budget. Why is there such a large gap between what you recommended and what the House and Senate have recommended?

You have to ask the House and Senate why they prioritize their tax bills over doing what higher education needs for the future of the state. I think it’s seriously misguided to have them not support the University and the Minnesota State systems. With a $1.65 billion budget surplus, [it] just means their priorities are wrong.

I’ve heard many legislators say that basically, [the Legislature is] funding higher education like we’re on a recession budget instead of the fact that we have a surplus. Why do you think that is?

They’re cutting everything. They’re equal opportunity destroyers. They’re looking at a number on the bottom of a spreadsheet, they’re not looking at the consequences of those cuts … They want to hold tuition down, and then they won’t provide the wherewithal to do that. It’s very poorly thought through, and we’re going to have very contentious final weeks to get to something we can agree on, which we have to do …

Regarding tuition, I know the University is currently mulling preliminary tuition hikes for students … President Kaler has said before that the tuition hike is the result of the Legislature not granting the University all of its requested funding in past years. How do you feel about that? Do you think a lack of state funding over the years is to blame for tuition increases?

I think it’s certainly partly responsible. I can’t give you the exact percentages but … because the University has other resources, but basically if … state support is cut back, one of the ways to make up for that is through tuition increases. And as I’ve said before, with the state funding share dropping in real dollars in 2012 — the lowest it’d been since 1981 — and so you had a decline in state support over those years, that’s definitely been a driving factor in raising tuition.

I’ve also seen in the omnibus bills that the House at least recommended a $93 million increase over the next biennium for Minnesota State, funding roughly half of their request. The $22 million allocated for the University’s $147.2 million request only fulfills about 15 percent of that request. Do you think there’s a prioritization of Minnesota State over the U among legislators?

I think they’re both being treated very unfairly. More legislators have Minnesota State campuses in their districts than the University campuses, so I think that gives a certain home-field advantage in that way. But again, I hate to compare Minnesota State and the University. I think they’re both being treated very badly and very unfairly by the Legislature so far.

Talking about how the legislators have a lot of the Minnesota State schools in their backyards, do you think there’s a rural/metro split at the Legislature underlying that increased funding for Minnesota State over the University?

I don’t want to pit Minnesota State against the University. There’s a $1.65 billion budget surplus. We have the resources to do justice to both of them and provide them with what’s needed so they continue to provide world-class educations and world-class facilities …

Would you sign an omnibus bill with what the House and Senate recommended for the University right now?

No.

What would that amount need to be closer to for the U?

Closer to what I proposed. Unfortunately, we’ll have to make some concessions to the Legislature in order to get an agreement, but I’m going to hold out for the numbers that I think are in my budget because I believe those are appropriate and necessary …

Some legislators have said that the U’s requests, in this year and in years past, both bonding and budget, have reflected wants, not needs. How do you feel about that?

I think they’re needs. The bonding, we’re seriously behind [on] … the capital improvement needs of the University and of MNSCU. Those are serious needs and just the basic upkeep and maintenance … has been seriously underfunded … You’re not going to have world-class educations in old-world facilities. I totally disagree with that view, and I think it’s a cop-out on the part of the legislators who really don’t understand or care about what the real needs are of both systems.

What do you think are the long-term consequences if the Legislature continues to underfund the requests of higher education institutions like the U and Minnesota State?

Well tuition will have to go up. It makes college less affordable for more and more students and their families. It increases the debt that students have to incur in order to complete their educations. It puts an unfair burden on your generation and on you and your fellow students. It shortchanges the future of the state of Minnesota because well-educated, productive citizens are our number one asset.