Higher education ‘stabilized’ by legislature

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A higher education funding package mostly passed muster with Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who trimmed a little more than $2.5 million from the legislation before signing it into law.

However, there may be deeper cuts coming, as Pawlenty said he may unallot between $150 million and $190 million of higher education spending to help close the state’s remaining budget gap.

Sponsored by Rep. Tom Rukavina (DFL-Virginia) and Sen. Sandy Pappas (DFL-St. Paul), a new law sets higher education funding in the 2010-2011 biennium at $3.1 billion. This includes funding for the University of Minnesota, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system and the Office of Higher Education, which includes student aid and other programs.

The total includes nearly $138 million in fiscal stabilization funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Notwithstanding any possible unallotments by the governor, the $3.1 billion figure represents a cut of approximately 2 percent from the forecasted base for total higher education funding.

The law caps undergraduate tuition increases at MnSCU institutions to no more than 3 percent in the first year and 5 percent in the second year of the biennium. Similarly, the law asks the university to cap its tuition increases at $300 in the first year and $450 in the second year.

More restrictive tuition caps were included in the law when it was originally signed; however, after hearing of the governor’s unallotment plans, the Legislature passed, and the governor signed, a deficiency law (HF2251*/SF1938/CH177) that raised the caps slightly in the second year of the biennium.

Student financial aid will get a boost under the law, which raises the four-year tuition maximum for students in the state grant program, and also raises the maximum allowance for living and miscellaneous expenses. Work-study funding will also get a $5 million increase.

The governor used his line-item veto power to cut several programs. The largest, a $2 million appropriation for a free-tuition demonstration project called the Power of You, was nixed, according to Pawlenty’s veto message, because it would only serve six cities and is “not a viable option” given the budget deficit.

Pawlenty also vetoed a $500,000 appropriation to a scholarship program to early childhood care and education providers, commenting that it already received funding from the omnibus health and human services finance law.

The governor also vetoed a $40,000 appropriation to the Cook County Higher Education Board, stating that a county board “is not the appropriate place to fund higher education.”

Funding provisions in the law take effect July 1, 2009, with the exception of appropriations from ARRA stabilization funds that are effective May 17, 2009.

Policy provisions

In addition to providing funding, the law includes policy changes covering a variety of higher education-related subjects ranging from alcohol at sporting events to clothing sold in campus bookstores.

A new class of mid-level dental practitioners is established by the law: “dental therapists.” These oral health care practitioners will serve as a middle option between dentists and hygienists, and will work in “settings that serve low-income, uninsured, and underserved patients,” especially rural areas. The law lays out educational requirements for dental therapists and “advanced dental therapists,” and also establishes licensure requirements and other regulations.

State funding for the University of Minnesota may not be used for research that involves human cloning, partially defined as “generating a genetically identical copy of an organism at any stage of development,” under the law. The provision was added to the legislation as an amendment on the House floor by Rep. Steve Smith (R-Mound).

Campus bookstores at public colleges and universities must, to the extent possible, offer clothing for sale that was manufactured in the United States, under a provision proffered by Rukavina. A report back to the Legislature on attempts made to comply with the provision is required.

The new TCF Bank Stadium and other sports arenas will have to offer liquor for sale throughout the facilities if they offer it for sale in certain areas, under a Rukavina-sponsored provision in the law. Rukavina said the goal is to make sure ordinary people attending sports events are not denied the same privileges afforded to people in premium seating areas. Or, in the words of the governor, who supports the provision, “If some get beer, all should get beer.”

Most policy provisions in the law take effect Aug. 1, 2009.

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