House and Senate higher education committees rolled out vastly different session priorities last week in the form of their respective omnibus bills.
The Senate funds around a fourth of the University of Minnesota's biennial budget ask in its omnibus bill, while a House companion overfunds the request to freeze tuition. Respective policy priorities also differ, with the Senate forwarding legislation related to state grant investment, addressing the state's workforce shortage and increasing accountability in higher education and the House focusing on student services and public safety on campus.
"The [omnibus] bill before us leverages… new investments to protect students and families from increased costs by boosting scholarship and grant funds, limiting tuition increases, bolstering successful programs that meet workforce needs, and increasing accountability for our public higher education systems," said Senate higher education committee chair Sen. Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth, at a higher education committee meeting.
The Senate bill, which would increase the University’s base appropriations by $24 million, would do little to meet the demands of the system, said University Vice President for Finance and Operations Brian Burnett at a Senate higher education committee meeting.
The bill also states the allocation should allow for a tuition increase of no more than 2 percent for resident students. University President Eric Kaler previously said the school's full $87 million ask would contribute to a 2 percent increase.
"The amount of funding provided would make it very difficult to hold tuition to the 2 percent maximum level directed in this bill,” Burnett said.
Anderson said students will instead see increased college affordability through the state grant program. The Senate bill invests an additional $23.4 million into the program, which would expand eligibility to more students and increase the award for students currently receiving money.
"We need to solve the systemic problems on the front end so we don't just keep pushing students out of school with loads of debt that will not allow them to live life and help the economy and prosper," Anderson said.
A bill requiring the University to provide a report to the Legislature with ideas about how to cut administrative costs by 10 percent would be one of the most significant pieces of Senate legislation for the school.
But Burnett expressed concern about the required report.
"As we begin the process of beginning planned budget reductions, it is often not feasible to publicize what the actions may be prior to the budget approved by the board or final implementation plans are developed," he said.
The House’s higher education omnibus bill allocation of $114 million would address high statewide student debt, the committee’s highest priority this session, said Rep. Connie Bernardy, DFL-New Brighton.
Policy bills included in the House omnibus bill focus on issues related to campus food accessibility, mental health support and services for sexual assault survivors.
"Minnesota college students need the ability to take advantage of their opportunities to learn, achieve, and succeed," said higher education committee vice chair Rep. Laurie Pryor, DFL-Minnetonka. "Unfortunately experiencing trauma, being unable to access meals regularly, and other challenges prevent this.”
University junior Natasha Sonhi testified about food insecurity on campus at the Capitol this session.
"The U of M resides within a food desert, so many students lack access to adequate, let alone nutritious, food options," Sohni said.
Both omnibus bills will be further deliberated on before being sent to a floor vote by May 20.