House and Senate begin talks on higher education spending


With a week left until the Legislature is due to adjourn, Senate and House members are starting to hammer out the differences in their funding plans for Minnesota’s public colleges and universities.

A conference committee that met Monday is shooting for a compromise that would raise state spending on higher education by $250 million over the next two years. That target, agreed to by Gov. Mark Dayton and DFL leaders in both legislative bodies, is much closer to the Senate’s proposed increase of $263 million than the $150 million approved by the House.

The new number, which was announced over the weekend, drew thanks on Monday from Rep. Gene Pelowski Jr. (DFL-Winona), sponsor of the House’s version of the omnibus higher education bill, HF1692. With more money to work with, House members may have an easier time reaching agreement with the Senate. Sen. Terri Bonoff (DFL-Minnetonka), who carried SF1236 in the Senate, said she expects the committee to finish its work quickly.

Still, there are wide gaps between the higher education budgets passed by each body. While voicing a common chorus of dismay at the rising cost of higher education, House and Senate lawmakers have disagreed about how best to help students. Both passed budgets that would fund a two-year tuition freeze for resident undergraduates at the University of Minnesota. Their plans diverge, though, when it comes to tuition relief for students in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system. The bill passed by the House would bar MnSCU from raising undergraduate tuition for two years; the Senate plan would cap increases at 3 percent.

The Senate chose to offset tuition for low- and middle-income students by funneling an additional $80 million into the state grant program. The House added only $11 million to the program.

Both budget proposals would provide the first state funding increase for higher education in years, DFLers say.