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Strategic Budget Advisory Committee (SBAC)
Strategic Budget Advisory Committee

Higher Education Takes a Big Hit in Governor's Budget

December 19, 2008

by Tim Post, Minnesota Public Radio & Lorna Benson, Minnesota Public Radio

St. Paul, Minn. — Gov. Tim Pawlenty's budget cuts protected K-12 education, but Minnesota's higher education system took a big hit. The governor is reducing appropriations to the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System by $40 million dollars.

Gov. Pawlenty says the cuts will be be split equally between the state's two university systems, $20 million from the University of Minnesota and $20 million from MnSCU.

Pawlenty admits the reductions present a challenge to both systems. But he encourages higher education leaders to make the cuts without affecting students.

"These cuts to higher ed are manageable in the context of the crisis that we have without impacting students," said Pawlenty.

MnSCU officials say on paper the $20 million cut represents a nearly 3 percent reduction in this year's state appropriation. But because all cuts come in the last six months of the fiscal year, it's more like a 5.8 percent cut.

MnSCU spokesperson Melinda Voss says college presidents across the state have already been watching their budgets closely, because they knew some cuts were coming. Voss says MnSCU schools now have a list of areas where they expect to find more savings.

"They're going to be looking at reducing the number of course sections, leaving vacant job positions open unless they're critical, pulling back on equipment spending, repair and maintenance budgets where ever they can., turning down the thermostats, increasing energy conservation measures, deferring computer replacements for classrooms," said Voss.

Gov. Pawlenty planned to meet with University of Minnesota President Bob Bruininks this afternoon to discuss the cuts. The U of M did not make anyone available for comment on the budget reductions.

Beyond the $40 million in cuts to the two University systems, Gov. Pawlenty also plans to cut money used to train medical students in clinics, hospitals and clinics throughout the state. The Medical Education Research Costs account, or MERC, will have more than half of its $51 million a year budget cut. Mary Koppel is a spokesperson with the U of M's Academic Health Center, which uses the account to place medical students in training positions.

"This is the funding that goes to ensure our students and our residents have experience in communities. And if they don't have those experiences here, particularly our residents, they go to other states. And if we lose them from the state of Minnesota, it's harder for us to get them to come back to practice to be the professionals we need them to be," said Koppel.

For Minnesota college students, Gov. Pawlenty's budget cutting won't mean an increase in tuition, at least not now. Tuition rates at both University systems are locked in place through next semester.

But these cuts most likely signal more tight education funding, especially as the state deals with its two year nearly $5 billion budget deficit. Larry Isaak is president of the Minneapolis-based Midwestern Higher Education Compact, a group that works on higher education issues with colleges in 12 states.

Isaak says the budget picture in many state's is bleak, and it will likely mean budget cuts and tuition increases at universities as they struggle with shrinking state support.

"It'll be a combination of more pressure on tuition and just actual budget reductions," said Isaak.

Gov. Pawlenty says his budget cutting offers somewhat of a warning to Minnesota higher education officials as they prepare their budget requests for next year's legislative session. Times are tough and colleges are going to be expected to do more with less.