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Kyle Potter, Associated Press, Published April 17 2013

Minn. Senate OKs higher ed bill to tackle tuition rates

ST. PAUL — The Senate passed its higher education budget on Wednesday, a $2.8 billion package that aims to hold down tuition and make public universities and colleges more accountable to the state.

The funding bill sends an additional $80 million to the state's grant program for low- and middle-income Minnesotans, gives the University of Minnesota money for a two-year tuition freeze and bars Minnesota State Colleges and Universities from increasing tuition by more than 3 percent. And in an effort to give the state more oversight of both school systems, the budget holds back about $30 million in 2015 until they meet three of five performance metrics like boosting graduation rates and cutting administrative costs.

That bumps up a similar measure in the last higher education budget, when the Republican-controlled Legislature linked 1 percent of funding to meeting legislative goals. Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Plymouth, said that increase was necessary to put more pressure on the schools.

Several Republicans joined every Democrat in voting for the bill, which passed on a 46-18 vote.

Much of the Senate's floor debate focused on the University of Minnesota, which has been dogged by criticism of “administrative bloat” since a Wall Street Journal article in December reported that the school's administration had grown almost twice as fast as the student body in the last decade.

Bonoff said the school's administrative costs exceed “what we consider to be an acceptable standard.”

One of the metrics asks that the university cut those costs by $15 million next year. But because the school only needs to meet three of five goals, it could miss that mark and still get the funding.

“(President Eric Kaler) has to cut the costs, or he doesn't get the money,” said Sen. Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson.

Newman's move to make it a requirement in order to get the held-back funds failed on the Senate floor.

Republican senators also offered amendments to bar the school from using state funds to pay for administrator bonuses or buyouts for departing coaches. Newman called the latter “the Tubby Smith amendment,” after the former basketball coach who received $2.5 million after being fired last month.

Both amendments passed overwhelmingly, although the buyout provision is already part of state law.

The House is expected to take up a similar — but smaller — bill sometime next week that completely freezes tuition rates at both school systems. Rather than tying funding to performance metrics, Rep. Gene Pelowski's budget bill beefs up spending information both schools are required to send the state.

Pelowski, DFL-Winona, said the final version of the higher education budget may include both measures. The differences between the two bills will ultimately be ironed out in a conference committee.


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