Lawmakers: Higher ed likely safe from more budget cuts

by Maggie Hessel-Mial

It’s all quiet on the higher education front this week at the State Capitol, but with a $440 million state deficit to amend, some University bonding projects could be in jeopardy.

Legislators will deal with phase two of a state deficit reduction bill, bonding proposals for statewide building ventures and stadium conundrums in the week ahead.

Rep. Peggy Leppik, R-Golden Valley, and Sen. Deanna Wiener, DFL-Eagan, said higher education will probably not be cut more in this second round of struggling to fix state budget problems.

“It’s a relief in the sense that I don’t have to go back and cut more,” said Leppik, chairwoman of the Higher Education Finance Committee. “But to cut nearly $400 million from the state’s budget is not easy.”

Phase one of cuts included a $23.6 million reduction in state money slated for the University.

Representatives will vote on the House’s budget fix Wednesday or Thursday, and the Senate’s version is still in committee with no word on when it will hit the floor.

Rep. Tom Pugh, DFL-South St. Paul and House minority leader, said he expects to see more reductions in funding to Health and Human Services, Early Education and environment and agriculture agencies.

A tale of two bonding bills

Two bonding bills, deciding the fate of many University building projects, will meet each other next week in conference committee.

The Senate bill, which funds all 16 of the University’s requested projects, would spend $1.1 billion for building maintenance, renovation and construction statewide.

The House plan is more conservative at $737 million total and slates $131 million for nine University projects.

The entire Senate approved a proposal last month, and House leaders expect to vote on theirs Wednesday. A conference committee composed of senators and representatives will hammer out a compromise.

In the end, Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, said he thinks the committee will negotiate a $1 billion bonding proposal.

But Gov. Jesse Ventura has threatened to veto the entire bill or certain items if legislators do not specify how they plan to pay back the bonds, said John Wodele, the governor’s spokesman.

One stadium or two?

As the stadium debate continues, legislators say they consider the Twins facility a priority but might put the Vikings/Gophers stadium on hold for another session.

A bill to finance a Twins baseball park is on its way to the Senate floor for approval Wednesday.

The bill outlines revenue sources for the stadium, including user fees on game tickets and team memorabilia and an additional sales tax on food sold in the facility.

The revenue from these sources would go into a sports facility account to help fund a football stadium for the University and Vikings football teams.

Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, said he expects the baseball stadium bill to pass but does not think legislators will go for a second stadium this session.

“I would have like to see it happen this session so we can stop talking about stadiums,” he said. “But legislators don’t want to look like they are biting off twice as much.”

Maggie Hessel-Mial welcomes comments at [email protected]