U proposes 5.5 percent tuition hike

by Molly Moker

If the University gets what it wants from the state this coming legislative session, tuition will only increase by 5.5 percent.

In its leanest state request in the last decade, University President Bob Bruininks said he wants the state and the University to go into a 50-50 partnership, each contributing $84 million for 2006-07.

“It’s not fairly modest, but cheap,” he said. “The University recognizes (the state is) in challenging financial times, and we will do our part and set priorities.”

The lead Democrat of the House of Representative’s Higher Education Finance Committee, Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, said the University’s request sounds appropriate.

“I think it’s certainly reasonable and very generous of the University,” he said.

After last biennium’s $185 million cut, Bruininks said, the University made sacrifices, such as double-digit tuition hikes and employee wage freezes.

Bruininks also said the University found other innovative ways to generate money, but those strategies cannot be relied on for another two years.

In the 2006-07 proposal, the University will provide its half of the money with $54 million from tuition and $30 million from internal cuts and reallocations.

However, if the state does not fund the bill, Bruininks said, there would be little to do except increase tuition and cut more internally.

But increasing tuition will be a last resort, Bruininks said.

“The pain indexes on all of our campuses is already fairly high,” he said.

State funding

If the state continues to cut funding, Bruininks said, soon tuition and fees will fund the University more than state money.

Of the state’s total spending, the general fund appropriation to the University has greatly declined. In 1971, the state provided 8.1 percent of its spending to the University. This year, it’s at 3.9 percent. If the University receives its full biennium budget proposal for 2006-07, it will be up to 4.2 percent.

Bruininks said that ideally, state funding should at least be at 5 percent.

Of the proposed budget, $32 million each year would fund a 4 percent compensation raise for University employees; $10 million a year would go to academic investments and facility upkeep.

Some regents voiced concern that the University will need a backup plan in case the state backs down on funding once again.

Bruininks said that although the economy is still lagging, he wants to send the state a clear message about funding and the problems that result from a lack of it.

“If this state does not have the courage to step up and fund the University like it should, we are going to have to make some very hard decisions,” he said.

Regent William Hogan said this is the first time he’s seen the University in a 50-50 investment partnership with the state. The proposal should be fully funded, he said.

“At some point, we need to say to the state that we’re really fed up with this,” he said.

Andrew Sorsoleil, a student representative to the Board of Regents, said he was happy with the 5.5 percent tuition increase cap, but students cannot handle anything larger. He urged the regents to look for alternative ways to come up with funding, rather than relying on tuition hikes.

University chief financial officer Richard Pfutzenreuter said the budget is reasonable and the Legislature should find it fair.

“They’ll definitely be interested in the request,” he said. “We’ll get a positive response.”

But still, he is not sure the state will fund all the money, he said.

“They have thousands of priorities and little or no new money,” he said. “But there will be a big effort to get all the money.”

Pfutzenreuter said future tuition increases will be contingent on state funding.

Regent Peter Bell said maybe the University should draft a state constitutional amendment that would require the state give 10 percent of its general fund to higher education.

“We do that for highways, and the University is not less important than our transportation infrastructures,” he said.

The Board of Regents will vote on the final biennial request at its November meeting.

Bonding bill

Bruininks said the University is still working on passing the 2004-05 bonding bill.

“We clearly need it, and clearly deserve it,” he said.

Bruininks said he hopes the Legislature will come back and pass the bonding bill sometime after the election and before the new year.

If the full $155.5 million bonding bill is passed, the University would be able to update all of its buildings every 30 years, Regent Clyde Allen said. But without it, he said, buildings could only be updated every 60 years.

Pfutzenreuter said it’s hard to predict if the Legislature will still pass the bill.

“It’s heavy lifting to get that going,” he said. “But if we don’t keep the pressure on, they won’t ever deal with it.”