Legislature still considering funding for higher education

Jim Martyka

Chris Vetter

The slow-moving budget machine will make another stop in its trek toward the final University funding allocation sometime this week. The higher education funding bill will move to conference committee after members who will sit on the committee are chosen later this week.
“It looks like we’ve got a lot of work to do,” said Cal Larson, R-Fergus Falls. Larson said several discrepancies exist in the language of the two higher education bills.
Both the Senate and the House passed their higher education funding bills two weeks ago. If the two bills differ, they must travel to a conference committee before they go before the governor for approval.
The committee reconciles the differences in language and funding appropriations in the House and Senate bills. The bills will then be combined into one and sent back to the floor of each house for approval. The conference committee is comprised of five members from each of the House and Senate Higher Education committees.
The House and Senate passed bills providing vastly different amounts of money for the University. The House version included a $171 million increase for the school; the Senate bill allotted a $132 million increase. The conference committee could send either version as it currently exists or create a compromise of the two bills.
Sen. Sam Solon, DFL-Duluth, said he wants to give the University more money than the Senate bill provides.
“I would rather go up from our side,” Solon said. “But I’m not sure how much money will be available. We’re going to have to get a number, and stick with it.”
While Solon is willing to increase the Senate’s funding for the University, other legislators said they were more firm in their positions on funding appropriations for the school.
“In higher education funding, we have ‘Minnesota Nice,’ but both sides have a strong position,” said Rep. Lyndon Carlson, DFL-Crystal.
Carlson, who chairs the House Education Committee, said financial aid funding will be the major difference that members need to work out in the conference committee.
The Senate bill stresses financial aid, and almost fully funds the $65 million request of the Higher Education Services Office, which distributes aid to low- and moderate-income students at all higher education institutions in Minnesota. The House bill provides only $14 million for the office.
Sen. Steve Murphy, DFL-Red Wing, said both houses should focus on providing more money for student aid.
“We’re trying to take care of students,” Murphy said.
The Senate bill provides a $28 million increase for financial aid compared to a $23 million increase from the House bill.
For the entire omnibus higher education bill, the House spends approximately $2.38 billion, while the Senate bill spends about $2.36 billion. House and Senate leadership will meet in the next few days to decide a funding goal, Carlson said.
“The absolute key will be the target number” for funding, Carlson said. “Once that is resolved, we will be able to resolve some other differences.”
The Senate conference committee members were named on Friday. The House is expected to name its conferees today.
The senators on the committee are LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Thief River Falls, Larson, Murphy, Solon and Deanna Wiener, DFL-Eagan.
The date of the meeting is not set. However, the committee will likely meet later this week, said Tom Smalec, the House DFL-media representative.
Solon said the conferees will work together to keep student tuition low.
“We usually get along amicably (with the House members),” Solon said. “We all want to do what is right for the integrity of our students and the systems.”
Several members said the conference committee sessions could last up to a week.
Tuition should not go up for University students, legislators say. Both Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, and Stumpf, who are the chairs of the higher education committees, have stressed that the funding levels are adequate enough to keep the University from raising tuition above a 2.5 percent inflation rate.
However, Marvin Marshak, senior vice president for Academic Affairs, said there is a possibility the University might have to raise tuition if the final funding numbers are similar to the Senate version.
University President Nils Hasselmo has said administration will do everything it can to prevent raising tuition above the inflation rate.