Some lawmakers say UMN budget request reflects wants, not needs

At a Tuesday House higher education committee meeting some legislators questioned the school’s spending priorities.

Brian Burnett, Julie Tonneson and University President Eric Kaler present to the House of Representitives' higher education committee about the University's impact on Minnesota at the State Office Building on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017.

Easton Green

Brian Burnett, Julie Tonneson and University President Eric Kaler present to the House of Representitives’ higher education committee about the University’s impact on Minnesota at the State Office Building on Tuesday, Jan. 24, 2017.

Ryan Faircloth

Some state lawmakers are concerned that the University’s priorities are backward in its $147.2 million budget request.

The University requested the state funds from the Minnesota Legislature for initiatives to retain faculty and staff members, improve retention and graduation rates, expand research and restore health training services, among others, in its biennial budget request.

At a Tuesday House higher education committee meeting — the same day Gov. Mark Dayton recommended the University receive $96.8 million of its request — some legislators questioned the school’s spending priorities.

“There seems to be less … emphasis on actually holding or decreasing student tuition,” said Rep. Abigail Whelan, R-Ramsey at the meeting. “I just see a lot of different areas for investing and adding faculty and adding different programs.”

At the meeting, Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona said the University needs to better articulate any negative outcomes associated with the school not receiving the entirety of its funding requests.

“Unless … the University of Minnesota can show a consequence to not getting these requests, their requests then have to be characterized as wants and not needs,” he said.

Rep. Ilhan Omar, DFL-Minneapolis, who represents the University area, asked about student debt, administration costs and the standing of the University’s medical school.

She said she’s heard concerns over the status of the medical school because of its ranking decline.

“[The medical school] is one of my highest priorities at the University, and it’s an endeavor that the governor has dedicated significant interest in,” University President Eric Kaler said in response.

The University didn’t’ present its budget request at the meeting, but instead told legislators about its budgeting process and impact on the state of Minnesota.

University administrators also brought attention to the decreased state funding for the school over the last 20 years.

“We continue to look for ways to diversify them and support the mission of the [University], but there’s been a tremendous change in those underlying operation and maintenance funds between tuition and state support,” said Brian Burnett, University senior vice president for finance and operations at the meeting.

State appropriation made up nearly 40 percent of the school’s budget in 1989, while tuition contributed 12 percent, he said, adding that those two categories have “converged, if not flipped as you head into 2017.”

Kaler also addressed last month’s football team sexual assault controversy, the ensuing buyout after former head coach Tracy Claeys was fired and the hiring of new coach P.J. Fleck.

While the costs associated with the football scandal have generated concern among some, Kaler assured legislators no tuition or state dollars would be used to cover the costs.

Lawmakers in the GOP-controlled state House and Senate have yet to release their budget recommendations for the University.

In a Tuesday statement, Kaler thanked Dayton for the recommendation, which is nearly 66 percent of its request.

“I am grateful for the Governor’s pledge to advance student success, increase access to healthcare across Minnesota, translate research for the state’s common good and maintain affordability for Minnesota’s students and families,” he said in the statement.

University officials will present their budget request to the Senate’s higher education committee next Tuesday.

The University has also requested over $245 million this legislative session for Higher Education Asset Preservation and Replacement projects and six other infrastructure initiatives.

Earlier this month, Dayton recommended that the school receive nearly $155 million of that request. The House and Senate haven’t released recommendations for that request.

Max Chao contributed to this report.