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Battle lines drawn as advocates try to fend off GOP proposal for biggest higher-ed cuts ever

The Republican plan would cut $411 million in projected spending, including $306 million less than current funding. DFLers ripped the bill, and one already urged the governor to veto it.

The battle is set: Legislative Republicans vs. Gov. Mark Dayton and Minnesota’s two main higher-education systems.

The fight began in the House Higher Education Committee on Tuesday and continues this afternoon in the Senate. Both have released omnibus finance bills that would dramatically reduce state aid for higher education, despite protests from students, faculty and university officials.

Both the House and Senate bills would cut $411 million in projected state spending for higher education — more than double the reductions included in Dayton’s budget — as part of GOP lawmakers’ solution to Minnesota’s $5 billion shortfall.

The cuts translate to $306.3 million less funding than in the current budget cycle and represent the largest cut to higher education in the state’s history.

U of M, MnSCU hit hardest
The University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system would bear the brunt of the cuts. The House aims to reduce both systems by 13 percent — or about $160 million — under the current appropriation to roughly $1.05 billion each. The Senate would cut the University by about $50 million more than MnSCU.

Rep. Bud Nornes
Rep. Bud Nornes

Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, says his bill is meant to protect students as much as possible from the cuts, which he contends are forced by Minnesota’s budget deficit. The legislation contains scaled tuition caps for the University and MnSCU to ensure the systems don’t put the brunt of their problems on students’ backs, he said.

The bill also includes increased funding for the state grant program, which helps students pay for tuition.

Nornes repeatedly stressed that although higher education spending didn’t cause Minnesota’s shortfall — a point he made to the GOP legislative leaders — everyone must do his or her part to put the state back on a sustainable path.

In the “no new taxes” Legislature, Nornes seemed resigned to carry out the targets handed to him by his party.

“It’s just the way things work sometimes,” Nornes said after the hearing. “Sometimes you’re in the wrong place at the wrong time, but you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. If we could do what is popular, this would be a great job.”

That didn’t stop a deluge of testimony from those attacking the House bill. They used words like “decimate,” “destroy” and “disturbing” to describe the potential effects on higher education.

“I’m more concerned about the future of this state than any time during my tenure of service,” MnSCU Chancellor Jim McCormick said.

The bill would roll back University funding to 1998 levels, Chief Financial Officer Richard Pfutzenreuter said. He added there would be a wage and hiring freeze next year to cope with the cut.

Dayton, new U president meet
Dayton met with incoming university President Eric Kaler for the first time early Tuesday and answered questions about their exchange. The governor said Kaler is “very definitely” concerned about state aid to higher education — a trend that began with current President Bob Bruininks.

MnSCU officials said the reductions would force program closures, layoffs and tuition hikes. In a letter requested by the committee, Vice Chancellor Laura King outlined a variety of forms the cuts could take:

• Staff cuts of 554.

• Faculty cuts of 490.

• The equivalent of 10,164 full-year students not served.

“It’s a very disturbing trend that has negative consequences for students and the people we serve,” King said after the meeting.

Edna Szymanski, president of Minnesota State University-Moorhead, told the committee that if declining state aid forced her to make cuts at her campus, the music and doctor of nursing practice programs would be the first to go.

MnSCU — which educates 64 percent of Minnesota’s undergraduates — argued that the system is one of the most efficient in the country.

“This is the worst cut we’ve had, and it comes on top of a series of cuts over a period of 10 years,” McCormick said. “That makes it difficult.”

Higher education funding has decreased from 18 percent of the state budget in 1967 to 8 percent in 2009. Tuition at the University has more than doubled over the past decade.

Republicans had little to say in response. Party lines only became truly apparent when all but one voted in support of the bill.

That contrasted with Democrats’ doomsday predictions about what the bill would mean for higher ed.

“We’re going to take an ax to the budget in a very crude way,” said Rep. Terry Morrow, DFL-St. Peter. “If I had to give this bill a grade, it would be an ‘F.’ “

Morrow and Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, were the most vocal opponents.

Rep. Tom Rukavina
Rep. Tom Rukavina

Rukavina read to Republicans the number of students in their districts. He asked for roll call votes on amendments so the names of GOP lawmakers who supported the bill would be recorded.

“It’s a bad bill,” Rukavina told the committee. “I don’t know what else to say about it.”

Although Dr. Sheila Wright, director of the Office of Higher Education, wouldn’t say if Dayton would veto the bill, Rukavina is convinced the governor will. He told Nornes some tax increases would have to be included to offset the cuts.

Dayton’s budget calls for about $3.2 billion in new tax revenue in addition to cuts to close the deficit.

“This bill is not going anywhere,” Rukavina said. “It’s going to be vetoed.”

“We’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “In the end, there’s going to have to be some compromise.”

GOP Rep. Nornes says bill still early in process
Nornes said he hadn’t met the governor or worked with him on the proposal, but added that it’s still early in the process.

“I haven’t seen it, Dayton said. “I don’t know anything about it.”

Although DFLers were vocal about an expected veto, all the Republicans in the committee voted for the bill — except King Banaian, a freshman representative from St. Cloud.

Banaian, the sole GOP dissenter, said as he goes back into a classroom at St. Cloud State University this May, he needs to be able to tell students he did his best with a bad situation. The bill, he said, didn’t meet that test.

Banaian also voted against a previous GOP measure that would have cut $900 million in state spending, including some reductions to higher ed funding.

“They had to know when a state university professor got elected,” Banaian said of his support for higher education. “I’ve got a special place for this.”

James Nord, a Univeristy of Minnesota student, is a MinnPost intern.