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Senators pledge to fight for funding for MnSCU

Bemidji State University and Northwest Technical College President Richard Hanson, left, listens to BSU Vice President for Finance and Administration Bill Maki, right, explain needed campus renovations to Sen. Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville and Chairman of the Higher Education Committee, and Sen. John Carlson, R-Bemidji, Wednesday afternoon. Pioneer Photo/Monte Draper

Two Republican senators urged higher education constituents to think outside the box in finding ways to provide more education for less money.

They also pledged to advocate for more dollars for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.

Sen. Michelle Fischbach, R- Paynesville, and Sen. John Carlson, R-Bemidji, met with administrators, faculty and students at Bemidji State University and Northwest Technical College Wednesday to discuss solutions and listen to ideas about the long-term health and effectiveness of Minnesota's higher education system.

Fischbach, who has been a member of the state Legislature for 15 years, is the chair of the Higher Education Committee, which Carlson also sits on.

Carlson said he has seen a "tremendous change" in tuition costs, which he said is one reason he authored a bill that would have temporarily frozen and permanently limited tuition increases at public colleges and universities.

"What was interesting was students from all over the state visited with me and said, 'Maybe a freeze is a step too far,'" he said. "I respect the students for standing up and saying, 'We're OK with 2-4 percent increase, but not 10 percent.'"

The state's Higher Education Bill that came out this past summer set tuition caps for students in four-year programs and two-year programs. It prevented two-year colleges from increasing tuition more than 4 percent in 2013.

Sarah Shepherd, a member of the BSU Student Senate, told the senators she did not want to see tuition raised in the future.

Fischbach responded by saying, "With the tuition cap that we were able to do, I wish we could have done a little more, but in the end we scaled back, which happens when you're negotiating and compromising."

Shepherd thanked the senators for their work with the higher education bill in the last session, particularly with MnSCU being given another $10 million in operating money, and funding being set aside for the state grant program.

"It was important to us to have work study and put more money into the state grant program which was running a deficit," Fischbach replied.

She said the additional amount that went to MnSCU was originally proposed to be given to the University of Minnesota.

"I was very concerned in trying to protect MnSCU and recognize the fact that MnSCU has so many more of our students," she said. "We worked very hard to get (the governor) to at least give that additional money to MnSCU."

Both senators pledged to continue to advocate for more dollars for the MnSCU system.

Overall, funding for the University of Minnesota and MnSCU system was cut by 10.5 percent from the state budget. BSU and NTC did receive $1.635 million from the Higher Education Asset Preservation and Replacement funds in the bonding bill. The money is being used to pay for a list of projects at BSU.

Shepherd asked the senators to consider placing BSU's project requests as a priority in the next bonding session.

"I really would like to see you push to move those HEAPR projects forward so we can see some of these projects taken care of in the future," she said.

Carlson, who is on the capital investments committee, speculated that because the Legislature prepared such a large bonding bill last session, it would not look for a big bonding bill next session.

Fischbach agreed with Carlson. "Given the capacity for bonding for the state of Minnesota, I would think it would have to be a smaller bill," he said.

BSU Vice President for Finance and Administration Bill Maki stood up to comment during the discussion at BSU.

"We're really grateful that we were able to get bonding funds," he said. "We got the money in August and we have projects that are going right now on the campus with those funds."

BSU-NTC President Richard Hanson asked the senators to comment on the upcoming legislative session and the next biennium.

"On our campus, this last year, we had a pretty tough year," Hanson said. "We cut a lot of money and a lot of positions and programs. I'd love to know what you think is in the future for this institution."

Fischbach said legislators will be looking at the budget forecast in November and February and will decide after that.

"My understanding is there is potentially more deficit that we will be facing," she said. "Most likely that's going to mean additional cuts. Until the economy improves, we're going to see those revenues down. Spend a lot at Christmas, because that always helps in the February forecast."

Carlson said he feels somewhat optimistic about the next session and said he expects to see meetings set up around the state next year in which school boards, county boards and city councils will meet with legislators to discuss funding options.

"We're blessed here in Beltrami County, and the County Board is very forward thinking," he said. "They are well ahead of the curve on this idea of what are we doing to actually improve the lives of our citizens, not how much money are we spending. I see some huge opportunities out there to do some things different in higher education so we can get a little better bang for our buck."

Dean Frost, associate professor of business administration at BSU, noted that in the last legislative session, the Republican majority asked for a deeper cut in higher education than the governor did.

"You are projecting more cuts," Frost said. "The students are asking the faculty, 'If you want less higher education, what do you want to cut? What less do you want?'"

"If we find out there will be a shortfall, I wouldn't say we will be looking at cuts across the board," Carlson responded. "What I would hope to see is what areas took the biggest cuts the first time around, and let's try and hold them as harmless as possible. From my perspective, I'm going to fight to make sure they don't come for higher ed."

Carlson challenged legislators to allow public colleges and universities to "think outside the box."

Fischback agreed and said the government should "untie" the hands of public institutions so they can be allowed to do things differently.

James McCracken, professor of technological studies at BSU, told the senators the public perception the state government is "not good." He asked what they would take back with them to the state Legislature and model in terms of collaboration and cooperation.

Fischbach answered by saying, "I understand that people were upset (about the state shutdown). In the end, there was a compromise," she said. "That's what people were asking for - they wanted a compromise. You can say we were dysfunctional, but in the end we were able to come out with something."

Carlson said it is his goal that by the time legislators close session in 2012, an amendment in the State Constitution be voted on by the public that will guarantee the State of Minnesota cannot shut down because of an impasse between the Legislative and Executive branches of government.

After the discussion at BSU concluded, Hanson said, he appreciated the senators' visit and said he hoped they bring the "freshness" of being on a campus back with them to the next legislative session.

"You get real insulated if you just stay in your office," he said.

Hanson added he is concerned about the potential for another state budget deficit in the future.

"We're concerned. This economic forecast will be important," Hanson said. "I sense there's not going to be too much progress made."