Aid proposal tops committee debate

Coralie Carlson

Receiving a taste of the confusion many students face every year when applying for financial aid, state lawmakers couldn’t get numbers to match up Monday as they tried to devise a new aid formula.
House members presented the Higher Education conference committee with a proposal which splits House and Senate positions to distribute a $13.5 million Pell Grant bonus from the federal government. Despite its congressional passage last year, the extra appropriation requires state action to free up the funds.
The House proposal also suggested a $33 million supplemental budget for the University to pay for classroom improvements, new equipment, and faculty and staff hiring and compensation. The allotment falls $7 million short of requests by the school and Gov. Arne Carlson.
On Monday, Democratic leaders allotted the committee $73 million to work with as it figures out how much to dole out to the University and other higher education systems. Committee members did not discuss the 4-H amendment, which requires the University to allow 4-H clubs to discriminate against homosexuals and bisexuals in order to receive the supplemental budget money.
In fact, committee members had little opportunity to discuss the University’s budget because financial aid dominated debate.
The Senate bill distributes the Pell Grant windfall by increasing the portion of total school costs covered by financial aid from 50 percent to 53 percent. But House members say 2,000 students who now receive state grants would not reap any increase from the federal boost under this plan.
“They wouldn’t lose (financial aid) but they wouldn’t gain anything,” said Rep. Lyndon Carlson, DFL-Crystal.
Instead, the House supports a “pass-though” option to direct the federal grant hike to students.
“It’s very straightforward,” explained Doug Berg, a fiscal analyst for the committee. “It simply passes the money straight through to the students.”
The House proposal locks both positions together by including the pass-through and raising the portion of student costs eligible for student aid to 52 percent. The House conceded on its other initiatives, like beefing up the work-study program.
Rep. Carlson said he was willing to make more compromises, but wouldn’t budge on the pass-through.
Senate members, who scratched their heads and wrinkled their brows throughout the discussions, adjourned the meeting to get more comparative information between the two plans and look at simpler ways to give students financial assistance.
“I think some of our members are concerned with the complexity of the House proposal,” said Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Thief River Falls.
Sen. Deanna Wiener, DFL-St. Paul, said she wants to find a more direct financial aid solution.
“I tell you, I’ve been here six years and it gets more confusing every year,” she said.
Committee members could resume their debate as early as today. They have their sights set on sending the bill to the floor before more contentious items, such as the bonding bill and tax rebates, dominate lawmakers’ attention.