Omnibus higher education bill would bar MnSCU from raising tuition

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An omnibus bill unveiled Monday in the House would give the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system much smaller funding increases than they have asked for – and tag most of the new money for tuition relief.

Members of the House Higher Education Finance and Policy Committee got their first look at the omnibus bill sponsored by the committee’s chairman, Rep. Gene Pelowski Jr. (DFL-Winona).

Rising tuition, rising student debt, the “historic” state cuts of recent years: These are the interlocking challenges in higher education that Pelowski has pledged to tackle this session. “We recognize that we have a huge problem,” he said after the meeting. “This bill is a first step in addressing it.”

It remains to be seen how the university and MnSCU will respond. The committee heard no testimony Monday on the omnibus bill, but administrators of both systems have pushed hard this year for larger increases than the proposal on the table.

And while MnSCU administrators have pitched a budget that would include both tuition increases and new state money for a variety of initiatives, Pelowski’s bill would prohibit MnSCU’s board of trustees from raising tuition rates for the next two years.

The bill would give MnSCU $78 million in new funding for the biennium, all of which would be tagged for tuition relief. By contrast, MnSCU has requested $97 million to increase salaries, expand or launch programs, and fund student internships, among other uses.

The university has asked for a two-year funding bump of nearly $92 million, of which $42.6 million was directly tied to tuition relief. With that money, university administrators have pledged to freeze resident undergraduate tuition for the next two years. The omnibus bill would fund that line item – and hold the U of M to its promise by withholding the money until the university’s board of regents certified that it had held tuition steady. The bill would trim the rest of the U’s proposal: All told, the university would get an increase of just under $61 million.

The bill also includes language that’s meant to curb bonus payments to administrators in an era when students have been “pummeled” with tuition increases, Pelowski said. It would prohibit MnSCU from approving new employment contracts that would give bonuses to its chancellor, vice-chancellor, or presidents. The university would not be able to use state money on contract bonuses for a range of administrators, from the president to program directors.

Ultimately, House members will have to work out their differences with the governor and Senate majority leaders, both of whom have called for more new spending on higher education than the House omnibus bill proposes.

The committee is expected to hear testimony, consider amendments, and vote on the bill April 15.