Cut state fat before necessary programs

When a state starts hacking away at funding, forcing higher education to cut programs, raise tuition and implement hiring freezes, one would imagine the state budget is at its last resort and all departments have undergone serious, contextual evaluation. But in Minnesota, such an assumption would be wrong.

While nearly all state programs and institutions have made every feasible cut and are running with just enough funds to function, one area has moved in quite the opposite direction. In the last four years, Minnesota consulting fees have risen 65 percent to $865 million with no apparent project justifying such a substantial rise. All state departments, including the University, use consulting fees for everything from developing contracts to handling media coverage. But some argue these fees are unnecessarily high, and employees rely on consultants for services they could do themselves. They are demanding higher accountability for fee usage, and cuts in order to provide higher education funding.

Representative Lyndon Carlson, DFL-Crystal, who serves on both the Ways and Means and Higher Education Funding committees plans to propose a 5 percent cut to consulting fees, freeing $43 million that could avert higher education cuts. This seems like a logical move for the only remaining state funding area that has not tightened its belt, but similar proposals have been shot down in the House in votes along party lines.

Carlson’s proposal would allocate $20 million to the University, $20 million to Minnesota State Colleges and Universities and $3 million for programs that have faced extreme cuts. This would soften the blow of recent cuts to the University and would help avert further tuition hikes. All areas of government have been forced to cut corners, so this approach makes sense. There is no justification for the unchecked growth of consulting fees.

Carlson is not alone in his line of thought; Rep. Barbara Goodwin, DFL-Columbia Heights, and Sen. Dean Johnson, DFL-Willmar, have proposed a bill that would reduce consulting contracts by at least $100 million and would impose a moratorium on new contracts. They argue this is not just about the state’s current financial hard times; it is about accountability. K-12 Education Finance Committee members are also targeting consulting fees with cuts up to 7 percent to free money for their programs.

It is pertinent to the well-being of all Minnesota residents that consulting fees be immediately reined in and examined. It is irresponsible even in good financial times to leave any area unhindered. Given the state’s current financial desperation, however, it is nothing less than a travesty to Minnesota students. Before the state dismantles higher education piece by piece through tuition, reciprocity and program cuts, all areas of the state budget need to face the utmost scrutiny.

This oversized consulting budget seems an excellent place to start.