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Commentary: U of M only a money grabber

Just a few weeks ago Robert Bruininks, president of the University of Minnesota, was quoted as saying: "This is a time when we ought to seriously consider a gas tax increase and perhaps a sales tax increase dedicated to transportation. We need ad...

Just a few weeks ago Robert Bruininks, president of the University of Minnesota, was quoted as saying: "This is a time when we ought to seriously consider a gas tax increase and perhaps a sales tax increase dedicated to transportation. We need additional resources to take that pressure off of the general fund of Minnesota."

His message was that Gov. Pawlenty's proposal calling for 40 percent of this year's bonding bill to be used for transportation projects left the University of Minnesota about $100 million short of what their request was for state bonds. President Bruininks was complaining that higher education facilities have historically received around 35 percent of the state's debt-funded resources and that this year the governor was recommending only 23 percent. The University of Minnesota president was implying that funding buildings at the University is a higher priority than funding roads and bridges.

Having toured many of the buildings at the University of Minnesota campuses when I chaired the House Capitol Investment Committee, it is obvious that the University has done very well in the past at getting their bonding requests granted. That does not mean, however, that policy makers should feel compelled to always fund things in the same proportion as they have been in the past. In 2008, investing in our state's roads and bridges may indeed be a higher prior-ity than buildings at our state higher education institutions.

While on the subject of funding priorities, let's examine a few other spending "priorities" at the U of M. We all remember how the University came begging the state of Minnesota for a new football stadium, even though they had a contract to continue to play at the Metrodome which is just a few blocks from the West Bank campus. Why spend $235 million on an outdoor stadium when you already have a 60,000 seat indoor stadium to play in?

Then there is the announce-ment that the University would purchase the Plymouth Denn Shopping Center for $1.125 million. This is a 2.2 acre site in North Minneapolis, where they intend to open their new Urban Research and Out-reach/Engagement Center. In addition to the million-plus purchase price, the University states they will spend another $2.1 million for renovation of the property. The question should be asked, why is the University expanding its facili-ties if they can't afford to main-tain their current buildings?

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As if building outdoor sports theaters to entertain the alumni and purchasing run-down shopping centers to conduct social experiments isn't enough to question the priorities of our land grant institution, a week ago came yet another hypocrisy.

Echoing this "mistreatment sentiment", were the words of U of M Regent Anthony Baraga who said: "I don't think we're getting a fair cut from state government" in response to President Bruinink's proposed tuition increase that will likely bring tuition up to about $10,000 a year. The projected tuition increases are 7.5 percent for families with incomes over $150,000 per year and 5.5 percent for families with incomes of less than $150,000 per year.

These increases are despite the fact that state appropri-tions are greater than the dol-lars collected in tuition. Given that there are huge state sub-sides, one must ask does the University truly need to raise tuitions considering that they have a $2.2 billion endowment. For a public institution, the University of Minnesota has one of the largest endowments in the country.

Is there any question why it is difficult to obtain more funding for our state roads and bridges with the constant whining coming from across the river? I have heard a thousand times the reason lawmakers should raise the gas tax is because it is a "pure user fee," so if you drive on the roads you should pay for them.

How is paying for higher education different? If you attend the school, shouldn't you pay for it? We also provide grant assistance to low-income students. Do we provide auto grants to low-income drivers?

President Bruininks wants the people of Minnesota to pay higher gas taxes and higher sales taxes so that University of Minnesota users can pay less. Perhaps the University could hold down tuition costs if it focused on the true mission of a land grant institution ... providing "a practical education." State lawmakers can and should reprioritize bonding dollars this year to invest in state roads and bridges without raising taxes.

Phil Krinkie, a former Republican state legislator, is president of the Taxpayers League of Minnesota.

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