Budget bill clears hurdle

The House Higher Education Finance Committee voted 8-4 to pass the bill Tuesday.

by Brady Averill

A House committee passed its higher education budget bill Tuesday, which included the University’s two-year budget.

The Higher Education Finance Committee voted 8-4 along party lines. The bill’s next stop is the House Ways and Means Committee this afternoon.

The bill gives the University $1.2 billion, which is approximately $102 million more than it received in its last two-year budget. This time, the University requested $1.29 billion, which is $126 million more than it received in the last budget.

However, the committee’s bill includes $15 million in additional funding in 2006 for the University and Mayo Clinic’s biotechnology and medical genomics partnership – money the University never requested in its two-year proposal.

The bill severely cuts funding for technology and biosciences, said Richard Pfutzenreuter, the University’s chief financial officer. It robs money from those core areas to fund the partnership’s project, he said.

The discrepancy between what the University requested and what the committee passed could result in a 9.5 percent tuition increase in 2006 and a 5.5 percent increase in 2007, Pfutzenreuter said.

In the past, University officials said there would be a 5.5 percent tuition increase during the next two years if the budget request were granted.

Rep. Ron Abrams, R-Minnetonka, said the money for the partnership came out of nowhere.

“I don’t know if we even heard the genomics bill,” he said.

Though he supports the genomics project and thinks it is worthy of funding, he said, it’s a substantial amount of money.

He said the House Jobs and Economic Opportunity Policy and Finance Committee had previously heard the bill that provided funding for the partnership.

Frank Cerra, the University’s Academic Health Center senior vice president, said he could not accept the way the partnership was being funded.

The partnership was intended for economic development, he said, not for higher education.

Taking the $15 million from the University during the next two years will “severely impede” it, Cerra said.

The money should be used to support academic programs, he said.

The bill was handed to the higher education committee at the last minute, said Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, the committee chairman.

Nornes said he hopes the problem can be solved when the House and Senate meet in conference committee to pass a higher education budget bill.

Rep. Joe Opatz, DFL-St. Cloud, was the only Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party member to vote for the bill.

He said he couldn’t recall the last time there was $200 million in additional funding for higher education.

“I’m going to vote for this bill today, because I think it’s a real change,” he said.

Those who voted against the bill said it lacked investment in higher education.

Two legislators said they wished they could vote for a higher education bill.

“I cannot support this bill. I wish I could, but I cannot,” said Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona.

Rep. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, said the budget relies on tuition increases.

“You can spell it t-u-i-t-i-o-n, but it really means t-a-x,” he said.

A tuition increase falls on the backs of students and their families in the form of taxes, he said.

“I’m not comfortable being a part of that,” Latz said.

Other legislative news

The bill also included planning money for a new university in Rochester, Minn.

A planning committee would receive $200,000 to start working out the details of the new university.

Language in the bill also supported efforts by the state Higher Education Services Office to renegotiate Minnesota’s reciprocity agreements with Wisconsin, South Dakota and North Dakota.

Susan Heegaard, the office’s director, said negotiations are already under way.