Minneapolis, Minn. — The first question from one of the student moderators was surely near and dear to his friends and classmates -- the cost of higher education.
The Legislature cut about $350 million from the higher education budget over the last funding cycle. Those cuts led to double-digit tuition increases for the fourth year in a row, for students at both the U of M and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.
DFL House Minority Leader Matt Entenza said the budget cuts should not have happened. He blamed the Republican-controlled Legislature.
"What we're seeing in the Republican budgets is privatization through the back door -- basically turning to a high tuition model, where the only way students will be able to afford to go to the university is -- do you have parents prepared to write a check? Or are you prepared to go into tremendous amounts of debt?" Entenza said.
Republican House Speaker Steve Sviggum countered by saying though the state deficit required strict prioritization of scarce dollars, there was a bright side, too.
"We put $40 million additional dollars into the state grant program to make sure that those students, those low income students who really really needed the help to attend school, would have the opportunity to do so," said Sviggum.
These representatives will know, wow, (students) actually registered to vote this year. Wow, they're actually voting this year, and wow, they're taking the time to listen to us, and to share their concerns with us.
Much of the debate was a partisan back-and-forth about which party had the better budget solution last session.
The lawmakers did look to the future, briefly. They were asked what they could both agree on when it comes to higher education.
For Sviggum the answer was easy -- a package of public works spending financed by borrowing money through the sale of state bonds.
"It certainly should be something that we can come forward and say, we can do it right now, we can agree to pass it right now," said Sviggum. "In fact, maybe we should agree to pass it, Matt, before the session starts in January -- in a kind of a lame duck session -- so it doesn't get caught in the leverage of the next legislative session."
Last session, the U of M and MnSCU asked for a total of about $430 million for the upkeep and improvement of campus buildings. The House passed a bonding bill with much smaller amounts for the two institutions, but the bill stalled on the Senate side.
After blaming the Senate Republicans for failing to pass a bonding bill last session, Entenza agreed with Sviggum that a bonding bill should be passed before other business next session.
Entenza and Sviggum also debated health care costs, funding light rail and commuter rail, and support for an on-campus U of M football stadium. Sviggum says he strongly supports a stadium, Entenza says his caucus does not oppose the idea.
While some students said they wanted to hear more about how the two lawmakers would rank higher education funding among next session's priorities, graduate student Dan Miller called the night a success.
Miller helped organize the debate as part of the student Public Affairs Coalition. He said he believes students need reasons to vote, and that politicians won't pay attention to them unless they do. He said his coalition's voter registration drive has signed up more than 1,600 students.
"That's just the tip of the iceberg. There's other groups doing the same thing. And I think that'll mean something when we go to the Legislature," said Miller. "These representatives will know, wow, they're actually registered to vote this year. Wow, they're actually voting this year, and wow, they're taking the time to listen to us, and to share their concerns with us. And that makes a difference."
Sviggum and Entenza seem to agree. They both urged students to stop by the Capitol. And before that, to vote.