Senate bill $40 million short of House bill

Erin Ghere

Coming in $40 million short of the state House of Representatives’ spending bill, the Senate higher education finance committee on Wednesday passed its version of the bill that will fund the University for the next two years.
The University was allotted $82 million by the committee; University President Mark Yudof requested $198.8 million.
Part of the shortfall, like the House bill, accounts for a lack of funding for the Academic Health Center. But bill has yet to be debated by the full Senate, which is expected Monday.
“This falls far short of what we would like to do,” said Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Thief River Falls, chairman of the committee.
The primary reason for the disparity is an absence of funding for any of Yudof’s health initiatives, including funding for the Academic Health Center.
Gov. Jesse Ventura recommended establishing a $350 million health education endowment; the Academic Health Center would receive $30 million from the endowment’s interest during the biennium.
But despite the overall funding gap, the majority of Yudof’s projects fared well, including faculty and staff raises and increased financial support for part-time and low-income students.
The higher education committee chose not to include funding for the health center in its budget, but funding will appear in another bill, said Jim McGreevy, a representative for Sen. Roger Moe, DFL-Erskine.
“It’s not clear yet what is going to happen,” McGreevy said of the Academic Health Center funding. “It is something that is very important to the Senate.”
He also said Moe met with Yudof on Wednesday morning and told him the health center will be funded. But the amount is still undetermined.
“The funding (for the Academic Health Center) is totally inadequate,” Stumpf said.
Sen. Sam Solon, DFL-Duluth, said the Legislature is proud of the health center and wants to fund it. Fellow committee members expressed hope that adequate funding would be allocated for the health center through another committee.
The issue of the Academic Health Center and the governor’s endowment will both probably be up in the air until they are dealt with on the Senate floor, said Mike Wilhelmi, the higher education committee administrator.
Yudof’s request was supported by the committee in all other areas.
Among the provisions that will affect the University is a 3 percent increase in faculty and staff salaries to compensate for inflation.
The Senate matched Ventura’s recommendations in the areas of faculty and staff cost-of-living compensation, and inflated Ventura’s figures for Yudof’s initiative to connect the University to the community.
The undergraduate experience initiative was supported, providing funding for freshman seminars, academic advising and technology-enhanced learning.
“We focused on students,” Stumpf said, “because they are the whole purpose of what higher education is about.”
He said the committee attempted to direct their attention to three principles: aiding lower- to middle-income families and part-time students in getting an education; trying to maintain programs in technology, resources and information delivery; and covering the inflationary costs of and adequately funding higher education institutions.
Of those principles, student financial aid was of high priority, Wilhelmi said.
One of the biggest changes made was $28 million to support part-time students.
Federal financial assistance programs define a part-time student as one taking less than 12 credits; prior to this bill, Minnesota defined it as less than 15 credits.
As a result, the Higher Education Services Office — the avenue through which financial aid is dispersed — received $54 million more than the governor recommended.
The finance committee also increased the percentage that the state pays to educating each college student from 53 percent to 55 percent, lessening students’ financial burden.
Wilhelmi said there is “great support” in the Senate for this provision. Both caucuses of the House were divided on the issue of lowering the student share.