House joins Senate in higher-ed bill, cloning amendment

Hours after the Senate passed its higher-education bill this afternoon -- which Democrats called the deepest higher-ed cuts in the history of the state -- the House pushed through its own bill, and added a twist or two that left the DFL howling.

The bill, passed 69-60 largely along party lines, cut higher ed spending by 10.9 percent-- both the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system by 13.1 percent -- and established tuition caps of up to 5 percent. Republicans also slipped in a last-minute anti-cloning amendment -- similar to the one approved by their Senate counterparts -- as well as language that both slashed the MnSCU chancellor's salary and required an efficiency evaluation of MnSCU itself.

Republicans pooh-poohed Democrats' warnings that such cuts would damage Minnesota's competitiveness, saying the time had come for tough measures -- and that higher education institutions had been throwing around a little too much money.

"Maybe a little austerity is what’s needed," said Rep. Linda Runbeck (R-Circle Pines). "Maybe we need to tell higher education institutions ... that maybe a little discipline is what they need to exercise. The other way hasn't worked."

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But Democrats condemned the bill, calling it an "industry killer." They said the cuts would hurt the state's economy by eroding the quality of the workforce they say has lured so many Fortune 500 countries over the years. Cutting higher ed would reduce the number of available classes, they said, causing many to study longer because they can't get the classes they need.

"Austerity is one thing," Minority Leader Paul Thissen (DFL-Minneapolis) said. "The largest cuts in history is another thing. Republicans are squeezing middle-class families. ...  Closing off college for students makes us less competitive -- not more."

Democrats have also said that Gov. Mark Dayton would not sign the bill.

Today's bill would cap tuition -- a request made by many students during tuition demonstrations this year. State universities could charge no more than 4 percent, and two-year state colleges no more than 2 percent. The U of M, which is independent from the legislature in many respects, would only  be “expected” to increase tuition by no more than 5 percent.

Higher ed committee Chairman Bud Nornes (R-Fergus Falls) said the university "has given us (its) word ... that 5 percent will be the maximum" tuition increase.

With the tuition caps — something that students have been calling for this year — colleges and universities will be able to make up only about a third of the cuts through tuition increases, Nornes said.

Republicans threw DFLers a zinger when they introduced to the floor an amendment prohibiting the use of state and federal funding in "human cloning." Unlike the Senate, the House had not discussed any such amendment in its higher education committee.

But as in the Senate, the much of the debate revolved around the wording of the amendment, introduced by Rep. King Banaian (R-St. Cloud), and what it intended to ban. Democrats pressed Banaian and others to say whether they wanted to ban reproductive cloning (the cloning of full human beings) or therapeutic cloning (the cloning of tissue used in the research for cures to diseases).

But Republicans wouldn't get specific, keeping it at "human cloning," a term DFLers have said is broad enough to cover therapeutic cloning.

"Some people just find it objectionable that money is being used for this," Banaian told the floor.

Steve Gottwalt (R-St. Cloud), said, "Minnesotans don’t want human life created and destroyed in a petri dish."

Democrats said the amendment violated the principle of the separation of church and state by allowing religious beliefs to shape public policy.

Rep. John Benson (DFL-Minnetonka) said it's an issue "that is going to impact the University of Minnesota as well as companies. Minnesota has been a leader in biotechnology, and this (amendment) threatens it. ... This has great economic consequences for the state. This amendment is a theological construct, and it is damaging."

The bill's two other amendments came from DFLer Gene Pelowski of Winona. He has consistently been tough on MnSCU and its use of money, and has pushed for legislation that would force it to trim executive salaries and become more efficient.

His amendment would not allow the MnSCU chancellor to make more than the governor -- a cut of about two-thirds, considering the chancellor's salary of about $360,000. The amendment would also ban bonuses such as the $40,000 one that Chancellor James McCormick received that had union workers fuming last summer.

"The head of the higher ed system will suffer what the rest of the system is suffering," he said.

Pelowski said that limiting the chancellor's salary could  have an effect on the salaries of other MnSCU executives as well.

The House also passed his amendment calling for an evaluation of MnSCU's efficiency. Although critics of the amendment have said a performance audit has already been done, Pelowski said the MnSCU needs to consider things such as cutting one layer of administration, sharing services and forming multi-campus institiutions.

"You do not get two layers of administration," he said. "It's not sustainable."

Other highlights of the bill include:

  • State agency cuts. The State Office of Higher Education administration would decrease by 15.4 percent.

  • State Grant Program stability. The bill would increase appropriations by 9.4 percent -- leaving it fully funded -- and leave untouched the Work-Study Postsecondary Child Grant programs.

  • Fixed  tuition. Schools would be encouraged to offer a “stable tuition” program that would enable students to pay the same tuition through their college careers — four years at universities and two years at community and technical colleges.

  • Benchmarks. The state would withhold one percent of the funding for both MnSCU and the U until the systems met benchmarks related to things such as graduation rates, diversity and institutional financial aid.

  • Senior classes. The House would reduce from 66 to 62 the age at which residents could participate in a reduced-rate college courses.

  • A study of for-profits. The state would study graduate education in the for-profit college sector in an attempt to protect graduate students’ rights.

  • Credit transfers. MnSCU would have to allow students to transfer credits from one MnSCU school to another on a 1:1 basis, at least as electives.

  • Mandates. The bill would repeal requirements for college bookstores to sell apparel made in America, and for public employers (such as higher-ed institutions) from requiring the purchase of certain items from the United States.

Nornes said he doesn’t expect or support any proposals to close campuses, but Rep. Tom Rukavina (DFL-Virginia) said tiny colleges just might. Rainy River Community College, which he said has only about 300 students, would take a cut of more than $2,100 per student -- possibly forcing closure. "It's 110 miles to the nearest (college) from International Falls, and you're cutting that campus," Rukavina said. "There are no highlights in this bill. There's nothing but lowlights." Nornes told the House, "Under the circumstances, it’s the best we can do. And we're not the only state in this situation."