MN House advances higher ed omnibus bill

The omnibus bill includes few new provisions aimed at student debt relief.

Kevin Beckman

With no additional funding to spend this session, some members of Minnesota’s House have expressed disappointment over the higher education committee’s omnibus bill.
The House committee’s target budget provided no increased spending for higher education. The Senate’s higher education committee called for $47.7 million in increased education spending, while Gov. Mark Dayton asked for $76.25 million. 
“The bill does nothing for tuition,” said Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona. “It does nothing to control student debt.”
The only provision in the bill relating to student debt would help increase awareness of existing federal loan forgiveness programs. 
“That bill is a historic fail,” said Rep. Jason Isaacson, DFL-Shoreview. “We have a $900 million surplus, [and] our schools are struggling to get by. They asked for modest amounts just to make ends meet. If we can’t find a way to do that, that’s just ridiculous.”
Both Pelowski and Isaacson said they don’t believe there’s much hope for student debt relief provisions in this session. 
“The only real chance of it getting better … is if the Senate comes in considerably higher [with their target budget] and they negotiate some sort of middle ground,” Isaacson said. 
However, Rep. Drew Christensen, R-Burnsville, said some of the policy changes in the bill will help students with education costs, including reducing the need for remedial classes and expanding child care grants to graduate students. 
“Frankly, I think we did a lot of good things in the budget year last year,” Christensen said. “We appropriated the U of M $53 million above base, $30 million for research at the medical school, $22.2 million for tuition relief as well as money for Alzheimer’s and dementia research.”
Christensen said the committee’s target budget was zero, and it wasn’t a budget year, so the bill shouldn’t be considered a disappointment. 
“I think people are being a little disingenuous when they’re saying the Legislature doesn’t care about education,” Christensen said.
And he said the tax bill by House Republicans includes tax relief, credits and deductions for people with student loans. 
“I didn’t expect that it would be an earth-shattering bill because it’s a shorter session,” said Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, the committee’s chair. “[The committee] has no money, obviously, at this point.” 
Legislators have also considered additional oversight of research at the University of Minnesota, including a bill by Rep. Abigail Whelan, R-Anoka, requiring the creation of a center to review fetal tissue research. 
Whelan added her bill’s provisions as an amendment to the omnibus package, but the amendment was removed in the Ways and Means committee.
Instead, a different amendment by Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, would require University researchers to receive approval from the University’s Institutional Review Board before conducting research using fetal tissue.  
Erin Dady, special assistant to University President Eric Kaler, said at the bill’s hearing in Ways and Means that the amendment was a “step forward” from Whelan’s earlier amendment, but that a lack of funding for the University’s supplemental budget requests remains a concern.   
Rep. Connie Bernardy, DFL-Fridley, authored an amendment requiring the University to provide funding for oversight by the Office of the Ombudsman into clinical drug trials involving human subjects at the Department of Psychiatry, which the committee has scrutinized  this session. 
The omnibus package also includes provisions for the MnSCU system to create a program plan for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities at MnSCU campuses and to require the Department of Education to establish “college ready” benchmark scores on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments.