Debated funding bill passes House

Amy Olson

After efforts to nix funding for a branch campus in Rochester and plans to create a $35 million endowment for the University’s Academic Health Center were shot down, the House of Representatives passed its final version of the omnibus higher education spending bill Friday.
While Senate committee efforts to produce a companion bill stalled, the House passed its version after nearly eight hours of debate. Any differences between the House and Senate versions will be worked out in a conference committee before the bill goes to Gov. Jesse Ventura for his approval.
The House bill includes $2.6 billion for the state’s higher education system. Under the plan, legislators would add $121 million to the University’s nearly $1.2 billion budget, while Minnesota State Colleges and Universities would see approximately the same increase.
As written, the bill would increase overall state spending for higher education by more than 7 percent from the previous two-year cycle. Together, the two systems educate nearly 300,000 students each year.
House members approved the bill 104-26 after an arduous debate in which it was amended several times — including a hotly debated measure that diverted $8.5 million in proposed funds from the state’s grant program back to the University and to the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.
Legislators also produced an amendment that attempted to cut $5.3 million in funding for the proposed Rochester campus, but ultimately approved it.
The bill includes a total of $5.3 million for improving undergraduate education at the University as well as faculty and staff compensation increases. It also provides an additional $6 million for health professional education and $5.7 million in one-time funds for repairing and improving campus facilities.
“This is a very good bill,” said Peggy Leppik, R-Golden Valley, who is chairwoman of the House Higher Education Finance Committee. “We have really put our money where our mouth is when talking about how we want to improve higher education.”
But the bill did not include funding for all of the governor’s recommended initiatives. Before the final vote, Rep. Thomas Huntley, DFL-Duluth, said the version did not meet Ventura’s recommendations because it did not include the $35 million endowment.
Rep. Lee Greenfield, DFL-Minneapolis, authored an amendment to reinstate the endowment to fund health professional education at the Academic Health Center, but House Republicans defeated the measure.
But Rep. Mike Osskopp, R-Lake City, objected to using funds from the state’s tobacco settlement. He said the lawsuit was intended to recover insurance costs of treating tobacco-related illnesses.
“That’s the people’s money,” Osskopp said.
The amendment also would have funded medical research at both the University and the Mayo Medical Foundation.
While Leppik lauded the efforts of her committee, some representatives questioned why so many amendments were needed.
Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, said there was little discussion about the bill in committee; the six Republican members voted for the bill, while the five Democrats voted against it because it did not include the endowment.
But Pelowski urged all representatives to vote in favor of the bill, as amendments made it more favorable to House Democrats.
“We (representatives) fixed it up,” said Joe Opatz, DFL-St, Cloud. “We made it workable.”
University officials said they are cautiously optimistic about the House bill.
“We are pleased with the strong support of the House for the University budget proposal,” said Executive Vice President and Provost Robert Bruininks.
He said University officials are still looking for support for the health education endowment. Regent Robert Bergland agreed.
“We’ve got a ways to go with the Senate and the governor,” Bergland said.
The Senate Higher Education Finance Division was expected to pass the bill Friday, but committee chairman LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Thief River Falls, canceled the meeting to attend to a family emergency. The Senate committee is expected to finalize its version of the bill Tuesday.
— Staff reporter Erin Ghere contributed to this report.