Friday, March 25, 2011

Legislative Update 3/21-3/25

The Senate Higher Education committee met Monday afternoon to take up a variety of bills including the governor's higher education proposal, SF 897, authored by Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, which as a reminder contains a 6 percent reduction to the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system. As the committee puts together their omnibus bill, members laid SF 897 over for possible inclusion. Chair Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, said committee members will take up the omnibus bill Wednesday at 3:00 p.m. and hear testimony from interested parties. The committee will then reconvene in the evening to take amendments.

The House Higher Education Policy and Finance committee met Tuesday afternoon to go through the omnibus bill and take testimony. The committee returned in the evening to finish testimony and take amendments to the bill. After multiple proposed amendments, the bill passed as amended by a vote of 8-6 and was referred to the Ways and Means committee.

President Pat Johns, Lake Superior College, told committee members that his college is trying to serve more students at the same time lawmakers are proposing a tuition cap of 2 percent at the two-year colleges, which limits what the college can do to serve these students. Johns said the Board of Trustees should set tuition rates after the colleges and universities go through the consultation process at the local level.

One of the amendments adopted that affects the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system includes an amendment by Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, that says none of the direct appropriations for operation and maintenance of the system may be used for new transformational initiatives. The tuition cap for the University of Minnesota was amended to an increase of 5 percent each year of the biennium. Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, also attempted to amend the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system's tuition cap in the bill of 2 percent for two-year colleges and 4 percent for four-year universities, to an "up to" 5 percent increase each year for both two-year and four-year institutions. The amendment did not pass. Rukavina attempted another amendment to increase tuition each year for the system to 4 percent each year. This amendment also failed.

Chair Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, said higher education has not caused the state deficit, but to right-size the state, lawmakers have to balance the budget in a way that sustains itself. Nornes said he realizes it's going to be painful and wishes it didn't have to be done.
The Senate Higher Education committee met Wednesday afternoon and into the evening to mark-up the higher education omnibus bill. Presidents Edna Szymanski of Minnesota State University Moorhead and Larry Litecky of Century College requested the support of committee members for local control of tuition. The Senate higher education bill caps tuition increases for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system's four-year institutions at 4 percent and for the two-year institutions at 3 percent. This is a slight change from the House higher education bill that caps the state universities at 4 percent and the two-year colleges at 2 percent. President Litecky said that honoring the local control of tuition-setting is a concern for all the colleges and universities in the system. Litecky said the result of tuition caps and the cut in the bill could mean fewer class offerings for students. Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, said that cuts to the system today will cost students and the state additional money in the long run, because students will not be able to get the classes they need and therefore will not be able to graduate on time.

In addition to the tuition caps in the bill, the bill cuts the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system $167 million over the biennium from the fiscal year 2012-2013 forecasted base. For comparison purposes, the governor recommended a cut of $75.6 million over the biennium from the 2012-13 forecasted base, and the House bill cuts $201 million from the same base. The Senate bill brings the system's annual base down to $546.8 million, the House bill reduces the system's base to $529.8 million, and the governor's recommendation brings the system's base to $592 million.

The Senate bill also specifies that if there are any salary savings to the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system caused by legislation that limits, reduces, or eliminates salary increases in any other bill, that savings is to be used to mitigate tuition increases or allocated to institutions under the Board of Trustees allocation model.

The Senate bill also includes the provision on senior citizen tuition age, as does the House bill. The language reduces the age of a senior citizen in statute to be eligible to receive reduced tuition back to age 62 from 66 (the statute was changed in 2010 from 62 to 66). Also similar to the House bill, the Senate bill sets a statutory amount for the tuition and fee maximum used to calculate the state grant award to the highest tuition and fees charged by a Minnesota public college for two-year programs, and the highest average tuition and fees charged by a Minnesota public university for four-year universities. The bill also sets the living and miscellaneous expense allowance, or LME, at $7,000 each year.

After a few amendments, none that affect the system, committee members passed the bill as amended, by a vote of 7-6.
The Senate Finance committee and the House Ways and Means committee both met Thursday afternoon and took up the respective higher education omnibus bills. Both committees approved the bills without any additional amendments, and sent them to the floor. Once the bills are taken up on the Senate and House floors, they will go to conference committee to work through the differences between the two bills.

Both the House and Senate State Government Budget proposals include funding for the Higher Education Veterans Campus Centers program that was set to lose it’s funding on July 1, 2011. The Governor also recommended funding the program again and adding to the permanent base funding. This will provide the program consistent funding for the future.
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