Tuition breaks possible

Bryce Haugen

Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty and legislative leaders from both parties pledged Tuesday to limit University tuition increases when the Legislature reconvenes next month.

At a wide-ranging news conference beneath the Capitol rotunda, DFL and Republican leaders offered a preview of the upcoming session, in which lawmakers will approve University funding for the 2008-2009 biennium.

Although taxes, health care and transportation issues often dominated the discussion – and prompted most of the infrequent disagreement – lawmakers found common ground in their support for more affordable college.

“We know the economics of this tuition equation,” said House Speaker-elect Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis. “When Minnesotans have access to education, they make more money for their families.”

Kelliher and her Senate counterpart, Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, stopped short of calling for a tuition freeze – an idea favored by Senate Minority Leader David Senjem, R-Rochester and soon-to-be House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall.

“The best form of financial aid is tuition under control,” said Seifert, who took over as Republican leader after the DFL wrested control from the party in the November elections.

Last month, the University’s Board of Regents approved a request for $123.4 million in new state funding, a nearly 10 percent increase. The plan calls for salary and benefit increases, as well as new technology, facilities and research dollars. To generate further revenue, tuition is slated to increase 4.5 percent in each of the next two years.

As long as the University sticks to these modest hikes, there will be no need for a freeze in tuition, said Pawlenty, a one-time supporter of the idea.

Unless it’s offset by increased state support, a freeze could put “a big hole” in the budget, said University spokesman Daniel Wolter.

But, he said, if the Legislature chooses to grant the University more money than it requested, officials would consider reducing the tuition increase.

So far, legislators have been very receptive to the University’s proposal, said Todd Iverson, a University lobbyist.

“I can’t say I’ve encountered a single legislator that’s responded negatively to the direction our legislative request is going,” Iverson said.

Renewable energy

On Tuesday, Pawlenty announced a plan to require 25 percent of Minnesota’s energy come from renewable resources by the year 2025. The proposal is a potential boon for the University’s Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment, a national leader in this type of research.

If the new standards are adopted, Minnesota companies will have an incentive to develop green-energy products since violators of the policy would be slapped with “significant” fines, such as next-generation ethanol, biofuels and biogas, Pawlenty said.

“This is not something that would be aspirational,” he said.

Advancements in biofuel and biogas, Pawlenty said, would simulatenously improve Minnesota’s economy and environment.

His proposal appears to have bipartisan support, at least on principle. But Pogemiller, a renewable energy supporter – like the three other legislative leaders – who represents the University area, said he wants “more bills” and “less press conferences” from the governor.

Pawlenty’s proposal is a promising step for IREE and its quest for more research dollars, said Todd Reubold, assistant director.

“I expect broad support for IREE and the University of Minnesota in the next legislative session,” Reubold said.