House, Senate cut deal on higher education budget

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The House and Senate have struck a deal on a budget bill that would freeze tuition for in-state undergraduates at the state’s public colleges and universities.

A conference committee on Thursday approved HF1692/ SF1236*. After years of cuts, the bill would boost state spending on higher education by $250 million over the next two years.

Calling it “an historic win for students,” the University of Minnesota’s chief financial officer thanked lawmakers effusively for the bill. He also renewed the university’s pledge to address red flags raised at the Capitol this spring, particularly a call by many to reduce administrative spending. “We will do our part,” said Richard Pfutzenreuter. “We know you have concerns.”

The bill still needs final votes from both the House and Senate. Its sponsor also issued a stern reminder that lawmakers still need to approve the taxes to pay for new spending. “Nothing comes free,” said Rep. Gene Pelowski Jr. (DFL-Winona).

The proposed budget would increase higher education spending by quite a bit more than the $150 million that House members thought they could afford earlier this spring. The Senate plan had called for an increase of $263 million.

The bill features two-year tuition freezes at both the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, retaining the core of the House plan. The Senate’s initial budget would have paid to hold tuition steady at the university but not at MnSCU, instead capping increases at 3 percent.

The committee amended the bill to include the Prosperity Act, a measure that would extend in-state college tuition rates and financial aid to some young people who lack lawful immigration status.

The deal made by lawmakers also includes new spending on a number of initiatives that got money in the Senate budget, but not in the House. MnSCU stands to get $24 million in new money for equipment and staff compensation. It’s a fraction of what the system had asked for, but the House budget hadn’t funded those requests at all. The University of Minnesota would get close to $36 million for its MnDRIVE research initiative – double what the House had offered.

The state grant program, which offsets tuition for low- and middle-income students, would get $75 million in new money. That increase was made possible partly by unanticipated state savings that lawmakers now expect as a result of the MnSCU tuition freeze and a federal increase in Pell Grant funding.