U officials: Pawlenty tuition cap not binding

Paul Sand

Less than a week after Gov. Tim Pawlenty recommended a 15 percent tuition cap for the state’s universities and colleges, University officials said they are not legally bound to adhere to the proposal.

Pawlenty suggested the cap as part of his 2004-05 budget plan designed to erase an estimated $4.2 billion state deficit. He also proposed a $185 million reduction in state funding to the University for the next two fiscal years.

University officials said since the University was founded before Minnesota’s statehood, the state has no governing power over the school.

Because the University predates the Legislature, the Board of Regents is responsible for making policy decisions, not state lawmakers, said Bill Donohue, deputy general counsel at the University.

The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, the state’s other higher education school system, is bound by law to follow legislative directives – including the tuition cap. MnSCU, which includes St. Cloud State University, Winona State University and Minnesota State-Mankato, among others, was established by the Legislature in 1991.

Donohue said the governor’s recommendation is unusual, but it’s relevant given the state’s budget struggles.

“Obviously the Legislature and the governor are concerned, but the final decision-making authority is with the Board (of Regents),” he said.

University President Robert Bruininks said last week he did not want the tuition cap “tying the hands” of the institution.

While Bruininks said the University respects the tuition proposal, he said it must have flexibility to create solutions to the $185 million reduction – including tuition increases. He said University administrators disagree with Pawlenty’s call for a cap.

“It’s just a good solid position that I think anyone would have in our circumstances,” he said.

Bruininks added it is too early to tell how much tuition will increase.

“We’re going to do our best to find other ways to balance the budget, but I do believe tuition will definitely increase over what they would have been without these extraordinary cuts,” he said.

Daniel Wolter, Pawlenty’s communications director, said the tuition cap encourages the University to work more efficiently and not pass budget reductions onto the students.

Wolter said while University administrators might not embrace the tuition cap, students should because it might keep tuition rates manageable.

“I think if you go ask the students at the University, they appreciate those hands being tied,” he said.

If the Legislature imposes the tuition cap on MnSCU, Wolter said the University will face enormous pressure to comply with the cap.

“Minnesotans are looking to leaders at all levels of government, including at the ‘U,’ to be creative and responsible in balancing the budget,” he said.

Wolter said the University and MnSCU have sufficient reserve funds and could tap into those as a temporary solution to the reduction.

University officials have said many of the University’s reserves are already designated for specific purposes and cannot be used to address funding cuts.

Wolter said a 15 percent tuition increase, spread over two years, should help the University address its budget problems.

“If they can’t live with a 15 percent raise in tuition, and can’t find internal savings, there are problems there.”

Paul Sand covers University Board of Regents and administration. He welcomes comments at [email protected]