In an effort to dissuade the Minnesota Legislature against cutting higher education funding, University of Minnesota President Bob Bruininks and Chief Financial Officer Richard Pfutzenreuter met with the House higher education finance committee Thursday, urging legislators to make higher education a priority for the state.
Last week, Gov. Tim Pawlenty proposed cutting $46 million — $36 million from the University and $10 million from the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system — from higher education in his budget plan to fix the $1.2 billion state budget deficit. Members of the House and Senate are now in the process of drawing up their own budgets.
“These cuts are very deep, and they’re very real,” Bruininks told the bipartisan committee of lawmakers. A decision to cut state funding for higher education would be a “deliberate decision to compromise our future,” he said.
Bruininks made the case that state funding is critical to the success of the University. He stressed the importance of having an educated workforce and said the success of the University is directly tied to the state’s business climate.
“We’ve got to fight to keep our edge,” Bruininks said. “I don’t want to be known as the generation that pulled the ladder of opportunity up behind us.”
Ryan Kennedy, Minnesota Student Association legislative certificate program chairman, said he agreed with Bruininks’ appraisal of the University’s dire financial situation.
“There’s not an easy fix to this, but certainly part of the solution does include getting as much support as possible from the state,” Kennedy said.
Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, who chairs the higher education committee, said he won’t propose a budget plan composed entirely of cuts to the University.
“You make the cuts. I’m done cutting,” Rukavina told the Republicans on the committee. “You cut what you want to cut.”
Rukavina said he plans to find money to replace the governor’s cuts through revenue-generating programs, including a possible sales tax on personal electronics and an income tax surcharge. He estimated he could find enough money to fill the hole from cuts to higher education.
Higher education makes up about 9 percent of the state budget, with the University set to receive $627 million from the state in 2011. If the governor’s recommended cuts go through, University funding from the state would revert back to its 2006 levels.
Rep. Keith Downey, R-Edina, said the University is lucky to be getting funding at its 2006 levels. He asked University officials why tuition couldn’t be raised even more to help cushion the state cuts.
Rep. Tim Mahoney, DFL-St. Paul, answered Downey by saying the state has abandoned its two-thirds funding obligation commitment to the University, where the state pays for two-thirds of the University’s operating budget.
“It’s totally wrong,” he said, calling the cuts “an abomination of what this state has always stood for.”
Bruininks said the University does the best it can to keep cuts from hitting students.
“When it comes to budget reductions, we try to do everything possible to shield students,” Bruininks said. “But you can’t make reductions of this size without touching education.”
The University is required to submit a detailed budget report to the Legislature outlining its plans for applying possible cuts by March 15.