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Budgets aim to avoid further tuition hikes

ST. PAUL -- Democratic lawmakers say they are shielding Minnesota college students from further tuition increases by calling for higher education budget cuts at a fraction of what Gov. Tim Pawlenty proposes.

College and university spending cuts are part of larger budget plans proposed to fix a projected $935 million state budget shortfall for the two-year budget period.

Republican Pawlenty proposed most state agencies - including the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities systems -- make 4-percent spending cuts to help erase that deficit.

Both the University of Minnesota and MnSCU warned additional tuition increases for next academic year are possible if the GOP governor's plan becomes law. Pawlenty proposed cuts of about $27 million to the university and $26 million to MnSCU.

Senators moved forward Friday with a plan to cut MnSCU spending next academic year by $6.5 million, but increase funding for some tuition assistance by $1.5 million. The Senate proposes about $10 million in cuts to the University of Minnesota, split between the current year and the 2008-09 academic year.

"We were very fortunate in that although we weren't held harmless, we have very small cuts," Senate higher education Chairwoman Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, said Friday.

University of Minnesota campuses - including in Duluth, Morris and Crookston -- were to receive about $1.4 billion in state funding in the current budget period. The 32 colleges and universities in the MnSCU system expected to receive $1.35 billion over two years.

Democrats who control the House propose cutting about $6.2 million from each the University of Minnesota and MnSCU to help fix the budget deficit.

The system can handle the House plan without affecting student tuition, MnSCU spokeswoman Linda Kohl said. MnSCU will look to cut spending, including programs in the system's central office, she said.

"We think we could continue to keep our tuition rate at what we had proposed," Kohl said of the legislative budget proposals.

Richard Pfutzenreuter, University of Minnesota's chief financial officer, said that system also could accept about $6.2 million in cuts without having to look to raise tuition higher than planned.

"That for us is a manageable number," Pfutzenreuter said. The House and Senate plans would require delayed spending on new university staff and programs, he added.

MnSCU already has proposed a 3-percent increase for tuition at the system's universities. Community and technical colleges in the system plan 2-percent tuition increases next academic year.

University of Minnesota tuition is expected to increase by over 7 percent next academic year, but about two-thirds of students are eligible for aids that lower that to about 4.8 percent.

Pawlenty spokesman Brian McClung said state agencies need to do their part to fix the budget, which by law must be balanced by June 30, 2009.

"The university has had a problem holding down tuition even when they've received enormous (funding) increases," McClung said.

Tom Rukavina, the House higher education chairman, said colleges and universities in recent years turned to tuition increases as a way to make up for insufficient state funding. The Virginia DFLer said that is not an option this year.

"I just said that I couldn't do it again," he said.

Pappas said her committee decided to cut less from MnSCU than from the University of Minnesota because of what the state colleges and universities already have done to limit tuition increases.

"We made a really strong effort on MnSCU," she said.