DFL leaders say they'd like to make more higher education funding a priority when the legislative session starts next week. But public colleges and universities may have to work harder to get that money.
After years of watching the state Legislature spend less and less money on higher education, Minnesota Private College Council President Paul Cerkvenik senses a change in attitude.
He says high-profile Minnesota groups have sounded the call that educated workers are essential. Minnesota businesses have become more involved in helping the state train them. And politicians have taken note.
"I think there's been much greater interest in higher education right now than there has been in two decades in Minnesota," said Cerkvenik.
That opinion is shared by Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, who is the incoming chair of the Senate higher education committee.
"The state has scaled back its investment in higher ed, and I don't think that's what we want to do," said Bonoff. "I hope that we -- and it's my intention to -- make a stronger investment in higher ed."
To get that investment, the state's higher-ed systems say they're changing how they ask lawmakers for money; their budget requests now better reflect today's tough conditions for students and taxpayers.
For example, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System, or MnSCU, says it would keep its tuition increase at 3 percent if it could get $97 million in additional state funding over the next two years. As part of that, MnSCU wants to expand internships and buy training equipment to give Minnesota industry the workers it needs.
But MnSCU would only get that full funding if it persuades businesses to match the state's contribution.
"We're not just going to the Legislature to say, 'Give us some money,' but we're looking at this as an investment, as a partnership," said MnSCU Board chairman Clarence Hightower.
The University of Minnesota is also changing its budget presentation a bit. Part of its request for $92 million in additional money would go toward financial aid. And it would boost research the U says would help the state's economy.
The U also promises to freeze tuition for two years for in-state undergraduate students.
Todd Iverson, the U's assistant director of state relations, says the U wanted its budget proposal to clearly show how much state funding it would take to keep tuition flat.
"We really tried to put the tuition thing out there front and center, and have a very direct conversation about the ramifications of state funding linked to tuition," said Iverson.
The DFL has generally proposed larger higher-ed budgets than have Republicans, at least over the past few years.
But that doesn't mean they can promise much this time around -- or that they'll go easy on college officials.
Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, the incoming chairman of the House higher education committee, says lawmakers will analyze budget requests closely. Pelowski says they'll demand that colleges remain accountable for how they use their money.
"The budgets that we're going to hear are going to take days and weeks to take a look at," he said. "This is going to be an approach that we haven't really seen at the Legislature in the better part of a decade."
Pelowski, who last chaired the committee in the 1997-1998 session, has been tough on higher ed in recent years.
He has repeatedly argued against the severity of past budget cuts, but also has publicly grilled eduation officials time and again at the Capitol. He has criticized their spending habits, lack of data, and suggested they haven't prepared enough for potential financial crises.
Pelowski reserves special criticism for MnSCU, which he has said is inefficient, with too many campuses and administrators. He calls five-figure bonuses paid to MnSCU executives "unconscionable."
MnSCU says executives earned those bonuses by hitting performance goals. But Pelowski says they're inappropriate considering MnSCU's record of high student debt and tuition increases.
"You give bonuses for this type of performance? Something is dramatically wrong. And we're going to take a really close look at it this session," Pelowski said.
College officials and students are also pushing for an increase in the State Grant, Minnesota's main source of financial aid.
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