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Bill holds tuition increases down

Rep. Tim Kelly of Red Wing follows debate Wednesday on the House floor. Lawmakers debated bills funding agriculture, veterans, environment, energy and higher education programs. Don Davis - Minn. State Capitol Bureau1 / 2
House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher calls on a member Wednesday on the House floor. Lawmakers debated bills dealing with funding agriculture, veterans, environment, energy and higher education programs. Don Davis/Minn. State Capitol Bureau2 / 2

ST. PAUL - Minnesota representatives told state-run colleges and universities to hold tuition increases to a minimum the next two years.

A bill House members passed 86-46 Wednesday keeps Minnesota State Colleges and University system tuition increases to no more than 2 percent a year for the next two years. University of Minnesota tuition is capped at 3 percent annually. The vote was mostly party line, with Democrats for and Republicans against.

Tuition limits are thanks to federal economic stimulus funds the House used to soften higher budget cuts.

"The stimulus money really helped us with this bill," Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, said. "Thank heavens it was there. But we did make cuts to the central office."

The MnSCU system would receive $65 million and University of Minnesota $115 million of federal funds the next two years.

Both systems would receive a bit more money than under current law - $1.3 billion to MnSCU and $1.4 million to the University of Minnesota.

Tuitions rose in double digits in several recent years as lawmakers trimmed budgets.

Without the federal money, colleges and universities would have been cut 10.6 percent in the next two years, Rukavina said.

Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, unsuccessfully tried to strip a provision from the bill that gives lawmakers more control over the selection of Minnesota State Colleges and Universities board members.

"I think it's unnecessary that we get involved," Nornes said.

The Nornes amendment failed 85-47.

An amendment to ban human cloning at the University of Minnesota carried 71-60.

A proposal to keep state money from going to athletic scholarships for foreign students failed 82-50.

Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, said that Bemidji State University needed foreign help to reach the collegiate hockey Frozen Four this year.

"I don't know where our team would have been this year without a few players from Canada," he said.

Unions agree

State government's two largest unions have reached an agreement with the state in a time when the Legislature and Gov. Tim Pawlenty are cutting budgets.

Details of the deal with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 5 and members of the Minnesota Association of Professional Employees will not be released until members are told the details.

Union officials said the deal would forbid furloughs, something Pawlenty had suggested as a money-saving measure, but the state contends existing laws still could allow furloughs.

"The tentative agreement would maintain public services, wisely use limited resources and retain the state's existing ability to furlough employees if necessary," the state Management and Budget Department reported.

The agreement covers 32,000 workers.

Taxes move ahead

A Senate tax package advanced Wednesday, but its author said he does not know how the plan will be reconciled with a House proposal.

The Senate Taxes Committee approved 9-4 a plan to raise income taxes on nearly all Minnesotans, generating $2.2 billion to help solve a $6.4 billion state budget deficit. The deficit is estimated at $4.6 billion after federal stimulus funds are included.

Senate Democrats' plan raises the rate on three existing income tax brackets and adds a fourth bracket for people making more than $250,000.

The House tax package creates a new income tax bracket for couples who earn more than $300,000 or single taxpayers earning about half of that, but keeps all other income tax rates the same. The House also raises alcohol and tobacco taxes; the Senate does not.

"We're so far apart, I don't have a clue," Senate Taxes Chairman Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, said of negotiating a compromise.

State Capitol reporter Scott Wente contributed to this report.

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.