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Minnesota Legislature: Whistling past the graveyard

Monte Bute
Monte Bute

This article is adapted from testimony before the Minnesota Senate's Higher Education Committee.

Graveyards are far livelier than most assume. I've become a frequent visitor in recent months. As a result, I am now somewhat proficient at listening to the dead. Today I bring you counsel from beyond the grave.

I stopped by the Lake Wobegon cemetery earlier this week. There sitting with their morning coffee were Stanley Holmquist and Nick Coleman, the greatest conservative and liberal legislators of the last half century. Joining them at the horseshoe lunch counter were GOP Govs.  Elmer L. Andersen and Harold Levander. DFL Govs. Karl Rolvaag and Rudy Perpich arrived shortly thereafter. By the way, Rudy still colors his hair.

Some of the deceased follow the stock market, and others study baseball box scores. For these folks, politics still holds center stage. They were looking over the week's legislative schedule and the bills coming up for hearings. "What are these kids over at the Capitol thinking?" fumed Majority Leader Coleman. "What are they thinking? The inmates are running the asylum!"


"Don't they understand that the quality of life we sustained throughout our stewardships came from investments in the future?" said Gov. Andersen, "Aren't there any farmers left in the Legislature? They need to remind their colleagues that you don't eat your seed corn."

"The Pawlenty era and its legacy," Gov. Rolvaag intoned, "prove that this 'starve the beast' philosophy is bankrupt, in every sense of the word."

"No new taxes! With a $5 billion budget shortfall — that is utter nonsense," boomed Majority Leader  Holmquist.

"Real conservatives are fiscally responsible but want to preserve what works. They also know better than to try solving a crisis of this magnitude with just budget cuts. Not all cuts are equal," continued Holmquist, "some cuts are penny wise and pound foolish."

"These youngsters think that this is the first major recession Minnesota has ever had," Gov. Perpich piped in. "The recession and its aftermath from 1981-84 was wicked, just wicked. But as bad as it was, we still managed to invest $100 million in a small-business jobs programs.

"The reason we had prosperity and well-being from the 1960's through the 1990's," added Gov. LeVander, "was because we never forgot that the most important resource any state possesses is a well educated workforce."

Let me be candid. I had no intention of testifying before the Legislature today. However, these voices from sessions past compelled me to speak.

On the one hand, you legislators profess to be committed to a well-educated work force that will require 70 percent of future employees to have a post-secondary education; on the other hand, you say that there is no alternative but to slash the higher education budget by 13 percent.

The implication of such reductions
Do you understand the implications of your actions? These reductions will take the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system below the appropriation level it had in 1999 — when it had 51,000 fewer students than today.

In 1999, the state's share of public higher education was 70 percent, with students picking up the other 30 percent. Today the state's commitment to sharing college expenses has shrunk to 43 percent. During the same interval, student tuition has more than doubled. In 1999, the highest tax bracket for the wealthy was 8.5 percent, today it is 7.85. It's time to stop whistling past the graveyard.

I bring you a single proverb from the land of the dead: Don't kill the goose that lays golden eggs. Just as your esteemed ancestors made long-term investments in your generation's public higher education, I call upon you to do no less for future generations.

Monte Bute is a professor of sociology and social science at Metropolitan State University. He can be reached at Monte.bute@metrostate.edu.

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Comments (3)

I'd hate to see budgetary regression at Metropolitan State University, which 20+ years ago had to rent class space at a suburban middle school. Oversize adult bodies were jammed into kiddie desks, and short bathroom doors afforded almost no privacy. Thank heavens today's students have central buildings they can be proud of.

When I started my freshman year at the University of Minnesota in 1968, tuition was $125 a quarter, or 100 times the minimum wage, or 300 times the minimum wage for a full year. Local students who were willing to live with their parents for another four years could easily work their way through college, working just an average of 1 hour per day. One good summer job would do the trick, with plenty left over for pizza and movies.

What is it like now? Well, the last time I checked a couple of years ago, annual tuition was about 1500 times the minimum wage. A full-time summer job at minimum wage covers only about 1/3 of the basic tuition charge, never mind books and lab fees. The student would then have to work about 30 hours a week during the school year to afford the rest.

This is a huge decrease in affordability and accessibility. It means that the students who attend the U are not necessarily the most academically able but the ones with the most money. How many poor but bright students in Minnesota will never have a chance to become engineers, doctors, and other vital members of society?

Excellent essay. Very moving.