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Higher ed bill headed for veto

ST. PAUL - Most Minnesota college students would face single-digit tuition hikes under a higher education funding package legislators passed Tuesday, but it is opposed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

The budget bill with $361 million in new spending for higher education, including to the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities systems, passed on the strength of Democratic support on mostly party-line votes in both houses.

The University of Minnesota would receive $24 million more than its sister system.

No public university or college should raise tuition higher than 5 percent in each of the next two years and at least one campus could see a decrease, said Sen. Sandy Pappas, a House-Senate higher education conference committee co-chairwoman.

"The days of double-digit tuition increases in the state are over," Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, proclaimed Tuesday night before the House passed the bill 86-46.

Earlier, on a 44-21 vote, senators passed the bill, a compromise between previously passed House and Senate versions.

The votes on the $3.17 billion bill were its final steps before being sent to Pawlenty, who vowed to veto the package in part because of the price tag.

The funding boost should allow the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System to limit tuition increases to just below 4 percent each year, Rukavina said.

Under the bill, tuition at the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus should increase by 2 percent in 2007-08 and by 5 percent the following academic year.

Tuition changes at other university campuses would vary after a payment formula is modified. Crookston's tuition cost could drop by 10 percent, while the rate at Morris and Duluth would increase by up to 2 percent.

Negotiators excluded from the compromise bill a provision dubbed the Dream Act that would have allowed illegal immigrants to pay the same tuition rate as Minnesotans do. Pawlenty adamantly opposed the measure.

"We were trying to get a veto-proof bill so we agreed not to put that in," said Pappas, DFL-St. Paul.

That didn't appear to be the case as Pawlenty said he will reject the entire bill when it reaches his desk. It includes a version of the Dream Act, charging the same tuition to everyone, at six technical colleges. More than a dozen colleges already have that program.

"It's devoid of any reform," Pawlenty said Tuesday, adding that it proposes spending $100 million more than his budget in 2010-11.

The GOP governor especially was upset that the compromise bill did not include reforms he suggested, such as Achieve, his plan to provide free college education to many Minnesota students.

"It insures that our higher ed institutions will operate in status quo mode," Pawlenty said of the Democrat-authored bill. "It is underwhelming, uninspiring."

Rukavina said the higher education conference committee, which he led with Pappas, agreed on a pilot initiative that could lead to Achieve.

"We can't afford to start a whole new program," Rukavina said.

One Pawlenty provision included in the bill would help pay undergraduate tuition for military veterans or Minnesota National Guard members who served on or after Sept. 11, 2001. The bill includes $10 million, while Pawlenty sought $30 million.

Rep. Morrie Lanning said a 14.3-percent overall funding increase for higher education and financial aid program improvements outweigh slim funding for military veterans and the bill's cost beginning in 2010.

The Moorhead Republican said he supported the bill "in spite of the things that I don't like."

Rep. Frank Moe, a Bemidji State University instructor, said college students would be helped by provisions aimed at lowering college textbook costs. The bill includes $500,000 for a textbook rental program, but also requires publishers provide students with more information about textbooks.

"That's the big deal," said Moe, DFL-Bemidji, adding if students know more about textbook revisions, they may not need to purchase the latest edition.

The bill also calls for a study of higher education needs on Northeastern Minnesota's Iron Range, a proposal pushed by Rukavina.

"When you're negotiating with a Ranger, they get their stuff and they do it charmingly," Pappas joked.

However, she tried to debunk speculation a full-fledged university would be the result.

"We are not going to do a four-year institution," she added.

Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, said the bill does not quite do the job.

"We have come close to a good bill," said Nornes, former House higher education chairman. "It is not quite good enough."

State Capitol Bureau reporter Don Davis contributed to this story.