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Higher education prepares for the next budget battle
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U of M President Robert Bruininks will propose a "50-50" deal to the Legislature for funding the university system in the next two-year budget cycle. (MPR file photo)
Minnesota's public colleges and universities are preparing to do battle on their next budget requests. Both the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities systems say they're going to ask for less money than in years past. But there's still no guarantee they'll get everything they want.

St. Paul, Minn. — Call it the incredible shrinking budgets.

MnSCU, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, is asking for $66.5 million -- $41 million less than what they asked for the 2004-05 budget cycle.

The U of M is asking for $84 million in new money, which is $12 million less than asked for the last biennium.

It seems counter-intuitive. Both insitutions took 15 percent cuts in the last budget cycle. But instead of coming back to the Legislature with a demand to make up for the last budget, MnSCU and the U are taking a different tack.

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Image Dan McElroy

Richard Pfutzenreuter, the U's vice president and chief financial officer, says the university's approach to the budget is to offer a 50-50 partnership. He says the U will put up $84 million if the state will match it.

He says the U will take care of its debts, utilities, operations and such, through cost savings and tuition. The $84 million requested from the Legislature is targeted at specific, new investments.

"What we're asking the state to invest in is not our base compensation and not our buildings. What we're asking the state to do is to invest in what we call biosciences for a healthy society, and money to attract and retain talented students, and faculty and staff here in Minnesota," says Pfutzenreuter.

Included in the U's request is a 5.5 percent increase in tuition for each of the next two years.

U of M student Tom Zearley says although it's an increase, he likes what he's hearing compared with past years.

Education is so important to the success of this state. It has been in the past. There's no way we should be cutting, we should be increasing.
- Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul

"It's almost a third of what it's been," says Zearley, president of the U of M Student Association.

He says the low proposed tuition increase looks "incredibly good."

Both the U and MnSCU imposed double-digit tuition increases for the past four years. The increases have been in direct response to drops in state funding.

Zearley says he knows full well the proposed 5.5 percent is not a done deal.

"Ultimately it comes down to what the state gives us -- and the case we make to the state to give us what we're requesting -- so that our tuition doesn't go up another 15 percent like it has the last two or three years," says Zearley.

A major factor in deciding the ultimate tuition increase is how the state sets its budget priorities.

Gov. Tim Pawlenty's Chief of Staff Dan McElroy says the state's projected deficit could be as high as $1 billion, so money is going to be tight.

"We applaud the idea of a lower tuition increase. I'm not sure that the general fund appropriation that they're requesting is doable, but it's an interesting place to start the discussion.," says McElroy.

At least one lawmaker is sitting squarely behind MnSCU and the U of M.

Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, chairs the Senate Higher Education Budget committee. She says she will not support further cuts to higher education.

"That's kind of the bottom line. They've taken way too much already," says Pappas. "Education is so important to the success of this state. It has been in the past. There's no way we should be cutting, we should be increasing."

Both the U of M and MnSCU budget proposals must still be approved by their governing boards.

University of Minnesota President Bob Bruininks will present the budget to the Board of Regents when it meets in Duluth on Friday.

MnSCU will hold a public hearing on the budget proposal on Oct. 14.

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