Committee agrees on U funding

by Chris Vetter

After nearly two weeks of deliberations, the Legislature’s higher education conference committee finally delivered its verdict on Tuesday night.
The University will receive a $1.076 billion budget for 1998-99, $151.38 million more than the school received in 1996-97. The University’s budget appropriation is part of the Legislature’s $2.376 billion higher education spending bill that was also passed on Tuesday.
Slightly more than $123 million of the increase will be allocated for recurring University expenses such as faculty salaries. The other $28 million increase will be used for one-time expenditures, such as a University women’s hockey facility and for the school’s Violence and Abuse Prevention program.
Richard Pfutzenreuter, associate vice president for the University’s Office of Budget and Finance, said he liked the final bill.
“It’s a good bill,” he said. “We’ll go back and begin to finalize the 1998 budget.”
The Board of Regents will determine how the state funding will be spent within the University at their June meetings. Pfutzenreuter said the board will attempt to keep tuition increases at about 2.5 percent or near the rate of inflation.
“I expect that (tuition) will stay in that ballpark,” Pfutzenreuter said.
Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Thief River Falls, who chairs the Senate Higher Education Committee, said the bill will help students by providing adequate financial aid and savings programs for parents.
“This is a strong higher education bill,” Stumpf said. “It is one that I think we can feel proud of taking back to the (Senate) floor.”
The bill will likely be approved by both Houses on Thursday and then will be sent to Gov. Arne Carlson.
Carlson will have three days to approve or veto the bill. It’s unclear whether he will sign the bill because it authorizes $64 million more in higher education spending than he proposed.
“I hope the governor’s office will join us and say ‘we’re back’,” said Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona. “We are back with this bill.”
The Higher Education Services Office, which distributes financial aid to low- and moderate-income students, would receive a $36 million increase for the next biennium under the bill, and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system would receive a $110 million increase.
The committee also approved a measure that will make independent college students with no children eligible for state financial aid. Under the change, the state could pay up to 20 percent of an independent student’s college costs.
Frank Viggiano, the executive director of the Minnesota State University Student Association, called this measure “one of the best changes in a number of years.”
“This will help reduce debt and increase the ability of poor students to get through school,” Viggiano said. “Independent students were being denied funding at both the state and federal level. This (measure) will change that.”
While the conference committee approved the measure to allow students to receive more funding, they also helped parents save for theirchildren’s future college costs. Both college savings programs, titled EdVest and Gopher State Bonds, were approved with minor alterations.
The committee approved the Senate version of EdVest, which would cap families eligible for the program at $80,000 annual salary.
Families that earn less than $50,000 can put money in an EdVest savings account, and receive a 15 percent matching fund from the state. Families earning between $50,000 and $80,000 would also be eligible for the program but would only receive a 5 percent matching fund.
Pelowski said he prefers the House version, which didn’t have a cap. But he still approved the measure.
“I’m hoping that some EdVest is better than none,” Pelowski said.
The committee also approved $3 million in funding for a University women’s hockey facility. The committee would like the school to build a multiple-rink hockey arena that could be rented out to other organizations when not in use by the University. If the regents determine that plan to be infeasible because of space considerations, the University can then build a one-rink arena for women’s hockey only.