State lawmakers considerfunding, saving and hazing

Chris Vetter

Gopher pride swept every inch of the state during the past few weeks, and the marble halls of the state Capitol were no exception.
The full House of Representatives joined with Goldy Gopher and members of the University band in a rendition of the Minnesota Rouser on Wednesday, prior to the men’s basketball team’s showdown with Kentucky. But college hoops was not the only thing on legislators’ minds the past two weeks, as several University-related bills were considered in various House and Senate committees.
The budget request
University officials presented their $1.6 billion budget proposal to the House Higher Education Committee Wednesday, and they also learned how much the House plans on spending on higher education for the year.
House Democrats unveiled their plan for the $2.3 billion state surplus Monday. The plan features re-investing the entire surplus in the state, mostly to generate property tax reform.
The DFL plan outlines funding targets for each funding division. The House committee would receive $2.38 billion to spend this year. That money is to be spent on the University, the Minnesota State Universities and Colleges system and the Higher Education Services Office. The plan would give higher education $70 million more than Gov. Arne Carlson’s proposed budget. Carlson’s budget includes the one-time $30 million funding that he outlined when the state learned it had a $2.3 billion surplus. Carlson has promised to veto the DFL plan if it arrives on his desk in the current form.
House speaker Phil Carruthers, DFL-Brooklyn Center, said higher education deserves the funding hike.
“We feel very strongly that the governor’s budget underfunds higher education,” Carruthers said. “Are we going to have the high quality system that we want in this state or are we going to continue to underfund higher education every year?”
The Senate won’t release their targets for its higher education committee, said staff administrator Mike Wilhelmi. Those numbers will become apparent when the Senate Higher Education Committee drafts its higher education bill, he added.
“We are conscious of what the governor is saying,” Wilhelmi said. “We want to put together a good bill that he will sign.”
Despite the good news from DFL leadership, Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, who chairs the House committee, told University officials Wednesday that the University’s budget request would not be fully met.
“I do appreciate the specificity of your proposal,” Pelowski said. “But I need a level of your priorities. Be frank, especially in areas of technology.”
The University’s budget calls for an increase from the Legislature of $230 million for the biennium.
The House committee heard from Marvin Marshak, senior vice president for Academic Affairs, and Richard Pfutzenreuter, associate vice president for Budget and Finance.
The University’s presentation was very similar to the one it gave before the Senate committee two weeks ago. The presentation focused largely on the need for new technology systems and to increase pay for faculty and staff.
Marshak also outlined plans to improve the quality of students coming to the University by recruiting 80 percent of the freshman body from the top quartile of their high school class. Rep. Satveer Chaudhary, DFL-Fridley, feared that this would reduce access to students in general and minorities specifically.
“Your diversity is going to drop dramatically,” Chaudhary said.
Both higher education committees will begin drafting their omnibus funding bills in the next two weeks. The bills will include all funding for education in the state.
Teacher evaluations
University students who want to know more about their teachers may get that opportunity under a bill that is moving through the Legislature. Under the bill, student evaluations of teachers would become public information and would be available to students who want to know what past students thought of teachers.
The House version of the bill passed through the Judiciary Committee March 24 with a unanimous vote. The bill now moves to the Education Committee for a hearing.
U-DFL Chair Kevin Pomasl and College Republican Matt Curry have worked together on this bill to open student evaluations to the public.
Rep. Alice Johnson, DFL-Spring Lake Park, who sponsored the legislation, said the two students have done an excellent job of presenting the information to the committees. “The students have been working on this for a very long time,” she said.
However, the bill has not yet gained a hearing in the Senate despite the efforts of students to attain one. Sen. Don Betzold, DFL-Fridley, has so far refused to hear the bill in the Senate’s Data Privacy subcommittee.
Pomasl has distributed fliers at U-DFL meetings urging students to call Betzold and Sen. Jane Ranum, DFL-Minneapolis, who chairs the Senate Judiciary committee, and request that the bill receive a hearing.
Curry said campus Republicans and Democrats alike are coming together to work on the bill. “This is a student issue, not a partisan issue,” Curry said.
The bill passed out of the House committee two days before the first deadline of the session. All non-funding bills were to have passed one full committee by Tuesday in order to have a chance at becoming law this session.
Hazing regulations
Hazing has become a problem on several college and high school campuses. Media attention has focused in recent weeks on the beating and harassment of students by their older peers or groups they want to join.
The Senate Higher Education Committee passed a bill March 21 that would require high schools and colleges to address the problem of hazing on campus by having a clear, strict policy against the practice. The bill passed unanimously after the committee heard accounts of hazing from several students.
But several committee members had doubts it is strong enough to cause any serious change.
“This will do nothing, I think,” said Sen. Sam Solon, DFL-Duluth. “I don’t think any student in this group will say, ‘Wow! We did something spectacular today.'”
Sen. Linda Scheid, DFL-Brooklyn Park, who authored the bill, said hazing crimes must be completely eradicated.
“Anyone who is injured or harmed by hazing will be protected by this bill,” Scheid said. “Most hazing experiences are harmless fun. So why are we eliminating it? We are legislating common sense.”
Currently, 39 states have laws that make hazing a crime. Scheid favors making hazing a crime, although this bill only requires schools to address the issue. She said it is difficult to regulate hazing through legislation.
“The hard part about hazing is there is usually a willing victim,” Scheid said.
The bill allows individual school districts to determine the punishment for involvement in hazing, ranging from suspension to expulsion, Scheid said.
Because of the University’s autonomy, the Legislature cannot require the University to enforce this measure, Scheid said. However, Scheid said she hopes the University recognizes and adopts the bill.
Scheid said the bill will move to the K-12 Education Committee before moving to the Senate floor. Identical legislation is also moving through the House.
Kathy Ungerman, a College of Liberal Arts senior and president of the Panhellenic Council, which is the governing body of sororities at the University, said she favors legislation that would make hazing a crime.
“Hazing is an amazingly traumatic event,” Ungerman said. “It is harassment and ridicule and can be embarrassing. The state of Minnesota has to take a stand and make hazing a crime.” However, Ungerman said she has never witnessed incidents of hazing at the University.
The bill comes from a hazing case at Roseville High School in 1995. Nikki Cosentino, then a sophomore at Roseville, was hazed in a traditional ceremony called Sophomore Kidnap. Cosentino described the evening as horrifying. She said 80 to 100 seniors urinated on her, broke bottles on her head and poured vinegar in her eyes. Cosentino has since transferred to Irondale High School.
Virtual U Minnesota
College and university students throughout the state might soon be able to register online under a bill that is moving forward in both the House and the Senate Higher Education Committees. The bill also stipulates that plans for offering classes online must also be in place by next January.
The bill would appropriate $2 million in the next biennium to help pay for the program, titled “Virtual U Minnesota.” The program would link the University with MnSCU and Minnesota’s private colleges. The Senate committee unanimously approved the plan Tuesday.
Sen. Roger Moe, DFL-Erskine, who sponsored the bill, said the plan is user-friendly and will be beneficial to students.
Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Thief River Falls, who chairs the committee, said the approval of the bill shows the committee’s commitment to improving technology at the University. “This committee has been technology-oriented for a number of years,” Stumpf said.
Both the University and MnSCU would contribute $250,000 each year of the biennium to help pay for the program.
The program is based on the University’s Web page, which already allows University students to register online, said Paul Wasco of the Minnesota Office of Technology. “The U front door is the engine of the program,” he said. “Students won’t have to deal with as much bureaucracies.”
Currently, MnSCU does not have online registration capability. The program would hook MnSCU to the University’s Web page, allowing online enrollment.
Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, said the bill is overly cautious and urged higher education officials to have online classes in place by next year, rather than just plans.
The House bill, sponsored by Rep. Pelowski, is also moving through committee. It passed through the House Higher Education Finance Division March 17.
Lottery money for University
A bill that would have given portions of the proceeds from state lotteries to higher education failed Wednesday in the Senate’s Children, Family and Learning Committee, killing the legislation for the session.
Under the bill, students from lower-income families in Minnesota would have received grants of up to $1,000 to help defray college costs.
The legislation would have provided about $12.5 million a year, said Sen. Steve Morse, DFL-Dakota, who sponsored the bill. It required a constitutional amendment that would be voted on in the general election in November 1998.
Morse said the funding would have greatly helped lower-income students who will see financial aid and other money cut due to federal welfare reform laws signed last year.
Sen. Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, who represents the University area, was one of the key legislators who killed the bill. Pogemiller, who chairs the K-12 committee, said the bill should be re-written to include high schools. Pogemiller added that the bill could pass next year and still appear on the 1998 ballot.
“There is no hurry on this because this is a constitutional amendment,” Pogemiller said. “The bill is not necessary this year.”
But several members of the Senate Higher education committee were upset that it failed.
“I hope when your committee takes this up it will review the costs of higher education,” Sen. Sheila Kiscaden, R-Rochester, told Pogemiller.
However, Sen. Becky Lourey, DFL-Kerrick, said using lottery proceeds to replace a lack of state dollars is a dangerous precedent. “If we need more funding, do we ask people to gamble more?” Lourey asked.
Sen. Kenric Scheevil, R-Preston, said the amendment would not have generated any new money for higher education because state money would likely drop to make up for the increase.
The bill also failed in the House last week, and won’t be considered again this year.
Student Services Fees
University students who object to paying student services fees for groups they do not like or do not use will not receive any help from the Legislature this session.
The Senate Higher Education Committee killed a bill March 21 that would have made student service fees for ideologically-based groups refundable.
Matt Curry, a junior in the School of Management, told the committee that students should not have to “pay for fees that they morally disagree with” on an ideological basis.
“There are questions every year about these groups, like the Association of Gays, Lesbians, Bisexual and Transgender, and the University YW,” Curry said.
Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, said the student service fees are decided in a democratic fashion by University students on the Student Services Fees Committee, and he noted that citizens also pay taxes for many things they don’t like.
Curry said he was unhappy with the committee’s decision. “I am disappointed that the committee did not vote to respect individual students’ ideological beliefs,” he said.
Savings bonds
With the cost of higher education constantly rising, a bill that would allow parents to buy tax-free bonds from the state passed the House Capitol Investment Committee March 18.
The program is titled “Gopher State Bonds,” and the bonds would be free from both state and federal taxes. The bill now moves to the House Ways and Means Committee for approval.
Rep. Lyndon Carlson, DFL-Crystal, who chairs the House Education Committee, said 24 states have bond programs similar to Gopher State Bonds.
The bill would also reduce the maturity rate of bonds so parents can cash them in earlier. Currently, the minimum rate for cashing in bonds is $5,000. Carlson said the bill would allow parents to buy bonds they could cash in at $500 denominations or less.
The $500 denomination is the value of the bond when it is fully mature. Inflation and the market determine the length of time before a bond matures. “It makes available an investment instrument for parents,” Carlson said.
Another part of the bill states that up to $25,000 in bonds would not be counted against students in determining status for state grants.
Carlson said the cost of issuing these bonds are minimal to the state.
“These are bonds we are already issuing,” Carlson said. The cost comes in because the bonds are in smaller denominations, he added.
Gov. Arne Carlson has introduced a different savings program, titled EdVest. Rep. Carlson said the two savings programs are different, and could both be passed into law.