Some want merit-based aid bill added to casino legislation

Stephanie Kudrle

The criteria for receiving state financial aid frustrates University sophomore Megan Rowekamp.

“I get completely overlooked because my parents have a lot of assets tied up in their business,” she said.

Rowekamp has applied for financial aid every year but has only received loans. She said she would welcome a bill to provide merit-based scholarships from the state for students who excel in academics.

Such a bill could be added as an amendment to casino legislation, Rep. Lynda Boudreau, R-Faribault, said. The bill would tax revenue earned from nontribal gambling in the state and set it aside for financial aid.

Although some legislators were supportive of the bill, which would essentially expand gambling in Minnesota, others said funding for financial aid and casinos should not be mixed.

Boudreau, the bill’s author, said she added financial aid funding to her original bill about expanding gambling to nontribal casino licenses. The addition would reward students for their work and encourage them to stay in Minnesota.

Students could receive an average of $2,500 a year under the plan, she said. The bill is currently stalled in committee, but she said it could be added as an amendment to other legislation.

She said expanding gambling in the state to include nontribal casinos would bring in “much-needed” revenue for many areas of the state.

“It’s a revenue stream that keeps paying us,” Boudreau said. “Everybody wins.”

There are many state financial aid programs available to students, but none of them provides aid on a merit basis, said Phil Lewenstein, communications director for Minnesota Higher Education Services Office.

Kris Wright, director of the Office of Student Finance, said to receive need-based aid, students have to meet certain criteria.

Typically, those with low incomes, little or no assets and siblings in school receive state financial aid, she said.

Wright said merit-based scholarships would serve a different group of students.

With tuition increases, she said, there is growing concern that middle-class students who do not qualify for need-based financial aid will not be able to afford college.

“In theory, it would provide more assistance to assure that high-quality students are able to attend school,” Wright said.

She said some students complain about the lack of merit-based aid.

But House Assistant Minority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, said the Legislature should not tie together two unrelated issues, such as casinos and financial aid.

“It’s bad policy,” he said. “There are better ways to help students afford college than by doubling down on a casino

proposal.”

Sertich said he thought the financial aid addition was tacked onto the bill to gain votes.

In general, Sertich said he does not support any casino bills in the Legislature because they would take away from other tourism attractions in the state.

But House Speaker Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, said adding competitive gambling to the state’s casino industry would bring between $50 million and $500 million in revenue for the state every year.

“You could do a lot for higher education with $500 million,” he said.

Earmarking extra money to go toward higher education is good public policy, Sviggum said, because people can see where their money goes.

Legislators would also be more likely to support it, he said, and it is possible for a casino bill to pass in the House this session.