Smaller U cuts expected from House

Maggie Hessel-Mial

State representatives are expected to approve the smallest reduction to the University’s operating budget of any of the Capitol’s three parties Wednesday.

House Higher Education Finance Committee members are expected to vote Wednesday on the proposal that would cut close to $20 million from the University’s operating budget – a smaller reduction than Gov. Jesse Ventura’s $33 million and the Senate’s $25 million plans.

The recommendation came as a relief to University officials who, in light of an expected $1.95 billion state deficit, feared the worst.

“We were looking from the perspective of the average student,” said committee member Rep. Marty Seifert, R-Marshall. “We wanted to minimize the impact on students facing the higher education cuts.”

Legislators hope to see the bill reach the House floor by Monday after it goes through the Ways and Means Committee.

Rep. Lyndon Carlson, DFL-Crystal, said he will not vote for his committee’s recommendation.

“We should be protecting higher education,” Carlson said. “Higher education has already had major tuition increases. What is being done now will at least in part fall on the backs of the students in the form of higher tuition or the decrease of programs.”

Many legislators expected the House’s proposal to be less friendly for the University.

Both the House and Senate cut $50 million total from higher education, but the House made more severe changes to the Higher Education Services Office.

The House’s 10 percent funding cut to HESO left director Robert Poch concerned about how programming will be affected.

“The substantial reductions in funding for our programs are harmful,” Poch said. “We are not happy about the news.”

HESO officials said they were pleased need-based student aid was saved from the cutting block but feared cuts to the electronic library initiative – which helps students access library material online – would hurt education in the state.

Poch said he plans to speak with legislators and fight the proposed cuts.

“I want to point out to the committee where this will negatively affect our taxpayers and students,” Poch said.

How the operating bill will end in conference committee is unknown, but Poch said he is hopeful the Legislature will adopt the Senate’s position.

Sen. Sheila Kiscaden, R-Rochester, said the Senate’s proposal – which left HESO virtually unscathed, transferring more cuts to the University – follows a national trend of higher tuition with higher student aid.

“This Senate has been conscious of the choices to do this,” Kiscaden said. “But the trend means students today don’t have the advantages of 30 years ago. It’s much more daunting when you have to earn close to $14,000 or $15,000 as a full-time student.”

In order to reach a decision, Kiscaden said, the governor, House and Senate need to agree on how to approach the problem, which hasn’t been done yet.

“We all need to cut $50 million from higher education,” Kiscaden said. “Whether it’s a $20 million reduction for the University or a $25 million reduction, who knows?”

University officials said they are very happy with the House proposal and hope the final cuts will stay close to $20 million, said Marty McDonough, University legislative coordinator.

McDonough said he expects the cuts to focus mostly on administration rather than tuition increases.

In other Capitol news, the Senate’s Capital Investment Committee approved a $1 billion bonding bill, which funded all 12 of the University’s requested building projects.

Ventura’s bonding recommendation was $845 million for the state.

“Higher education is faring very, very well,” said Kiscaden, a member of the Senate’s Higher Education Budget Division and Capital Investment Committee.

“I don’t think (Minnesota State Colleges and Universities) or the University of Minnesota has had a year in a very long time where their bonding requests were accepted as submitted and recommended for inclusion in the full bill. There are no reductions, and that’s got to be very pleasing to the University,” she said.

Maggie Hessel-Mial covers the state Legislature and welcomes comments at [email protected]