Legislative session

Coralie Carlson

Still recovering from Gov. Jesse Ventura’s inauguration ceremony, legislators continued the pomp and celebrations Tuesday for the opening day of the session.
But this time children lined the hallways, replacing the national media crews from the day before, and families of new senators and representatives took the place of former governors and movie stars.
The Senate met for less than an hour to elect chamber officials; the House — now under Republican control — convened for nearly two hours, swearing in 21 new members and electing Republican leaders.
While reception lines and party invitations filled most of the day, soon legislators and University officials will buckle down to more serious tasks — like determining the fate of the University’s biennial budget request.
University officials are asking the state for a $198.9 million increase in their two-year budget, bringing the total budget to $1.283 billion.
The increase would fund new programs like expanding the honors freshman seminar courses to include all freshmen. Other initiatives subsidize health professional education and provide basic upkeep for classrooms.
But Ventura and the new Republican House leadership are pushing for a tax break and elementary education programs, which could drain the fund before the University gets a turn.
“There will be a scramble for funding for new programs,” admitted Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Thief River Falls. Stumpf chairs the committee that funds higher education.
“That doesn’t mean we’re going to underfund higher education,” Stumpf explained, saying that the University’s base funding is enough to support the institution without the new programs.
He said he would like to see more programs to help graduate students pay for school and a continued commitment to keeping tuition low across the board. Also, the University will be more likely to receive funds if administrators develop ways to prove that the money helps students and the community, he added.
But Stumpf’s staff said his committee, which will draft the Senate version of the University’s allotment, won’t start crunching numbers until Ventura presents his budget. The governor’s budget should be out by the end of January.
While Ventura has not given his official position on the University’s budget, he told hundreds of students on campus Tuesday that he supports higher education very strongly.
Likewise, Lt. Gov. Mae Schunk voiced her support.
“We will work very hard for the purposes of education all over Minnesota, and that includes higher education,” she said.
Since elementary education has become an emphasis for the administration under Schunk — a former teacher — teacher training programs at the University may get a boost, she said.
“This is all kind of rising to the surface,” Stumpf said.
On the House side, Rep. Peggy Leppik, R-Golden Valley, the new chairwoman of the higher education funding committee, said she plans to start as soon as next week.
Leppik acknowledged the need to stretch state funds, but said higher education would not be ignored.
“We do not serve the state by squeezing them,” Leppik said. “I think there’s a very deep understanding and a lot of support that our University systems be top notch.”