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House offers larger higher education budget

ST. PAUL - Students at Minnesota public colleges and universities would see smaller tuition increases than they've experienced in recent years under a House proposal released Tuesday.

The University of Minnesota and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities systems are targeted for a combined funding boost of about $361 million over the next two years in the higher education budget bill sponsored by Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia.

That increase could mean tuition at state colleges and universities will rise by only 2 percent each year, unlike 4 percent annual hikes that were expected, Rukavina said.

The House proposal estimates University of Minnesota tuition to increase by 4.5 percent in 2008 and 3.5 percent in 2009.

College students from across the state told lawmakers about the difficulties they face because of double-digit tuition increases in recent years, Rukavina said, making that a priority area for new spending.

Students and some legislators had even called for a tuition freeze.

"That costs a lot of money to do and we don't have that kind of money," Rukavina told reporters at a Tuesday press conference. Total spending for higher education would be roughly $3.2 billion over the budget period.

The increased funding relies partly on a plan to collect more tax revenue from noncompliant taxpayers and close business loopholes, which GOP Gov. Tim Pawlenty and Republican lawmakers view as a tax increase.

"That's a problem," Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, said of the bill's revenue sources. He led the higher education committee before Democrats took over the House this year.

Rep. Frank Moe, a higher education committee member and Bemidji State University instructor, said Pawlenty will have to decide whether to side with college students or businesses hiding profits overseas.

"I think that's the trade-off," Moe, DFL-Bemidji, said.

In addition to increases for university and college campuses, there is $36 million in new spending for other higher education initiatives such as financial assistance for veterans and grant programs.

Rukavina tweaked a Pawlenty proposal by including $2 million for rural high schools to institute college-level courses. Another $1 million would fund a pilot project to lower the cost of college textbooks. Still another measure aims to make tuition rates at the University of Minnesota's Morris, Crookston and Duluth campuses comparable to the rate at its Twin Cities campuses.

The House proposal, which also provides grant money for middle-income students, came in $100 million higher than the Senate higher education bill approved last week, Rukavina said.

"They've got a better bill than we do," said Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, whose bill didn't include any new tax revenue or one-time surplus funds.

Left out of the House bill is a controversial measure allowing illegal immigrants to pay in-state college tuition rates. Pawlenty opposes the so-called Dream Act.

Pappas, a Dream Act proponent, included the provision in her bill and said she'll continue to push for its passage.

Rukavina said he expects to send the budget bill out of his higher education and workforce development division today. After the full House passes the bill, it will be reconciled with the Senate version in a conference committee.

The House bill unveiled Tuesday also includes workforce development initiatives, including:

-- $45 million for bioscience and technology initiatives

-- $750,000 to promote the bioscience industry in rural Minnesota

-- $500,000 for an agricultural-based bioscience facility in the city of Worthington

-- A meat packinghouse worker rights provision calling for more oversight of packinghouses

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.