By Danielle Killey and Don Davis
Minnesota senators easily approved a higher education budget bill Wednesday 46-18, but debate made it clear they want to hold the public schools accountable for spending.
The bill would give about $1.2 billion each to the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities systems, about $80 million more each than current funding.
“We’re covering the gamut of what it takes to provide the workforce of tomorrow,” said Higher Education Chairwoman Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka.
The plan aims to make college more affordable by directing funds toward tuition freezes and caps at public colleges and universities and allocating more funds for state financial aid.
Lawmakers accepted amendments saying state money cannot be used for athletic coach buyouts or for administrative bonuses. While Bonoff said those limitations likely are already covered by law, lawmakers said it sends a message that the state wants spending funneled directly to education.
The budget proposal requires the university and MnSCU to meet several requirements, including increasing degrees conferred and graduation rates and developing a plan to trim administrative cost to get their full funding in the second year of the two-year budget. Bonoff said about $30 million is at risk there.
An amendment added Wednesday says MnSCU’s tuition cannot rise by more than 3 percent. The University of Minnesota has pledged to freeze undergraduate tuition with help from the state’s funding.
“This strong bipartisan vote demonstrates our commitment to each and every Minnesota student,” Bonoff said.
The following area lawmakers voted against the bill: Sens. Paul Gazelka, R-Brainerd; Carrie Ruud, R-Breezy Point; Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville; Scott Newman, R-Hutchinson; Julie Rosen, R-Fairmont; and Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville.
Sens. Matt Schmit, DFL-Red Wing, and Katie Sieben, DFL-Cottage Grove, were absent.
Stadium cut fails
Rep. Pat Garofalo said he wanted to cut $10 million from the state’s exposure if enough money doesn’t come in to fund its portion of the Vikings stadium construction project.
In the House Taxes Committee on Wednesday, the Farmington Republican offered an amendment to reduce the state’s contribution from $498 million to $488 million. It failed 13-11.
The Vikings would have been responsible for the $10 million.
“Don’t feel bad for them,” Garofalo said. “They are going to do just fine. … They are more than getting a fabulous deal.”
Electronic pulltabs, newly authorized to provide stadium funding, were to be in 2,500 bars by now. They are in only 250 and producing far less state revenue than planned, but Gov. Mark Dayton and others say they are confident that revenues will increase.
“I am of the opinion that it is much too early to throw in the towel on the Vikings decision,” said Rep. Tom Anzelc, DFL-Balsam Township.
A leading alternative to pulltab revenue is adding a tax on sports memorabilia sales. The idea drew opposition from the state’s professional sports teams and the University of Minnesota during an earlier House Taxes Committee meeting.
The proposal being discussed would place a 13 percent tax on licensed sports items for professional and large university items.
A university official said her employer does not think it is fair for students to help build a Vikings stadium.
On the University of Minnesota’s largest campus, in Minneapolis, the new 13 percent tax would be added to the existing sales tax that tops 7 percent.
Dayton has said he supports allowing a memorabilia tax to be used as a backup financing plan.
Wheelage tax added
A statewide wheelage tax option and change to the gasoline tax are among changes included in the Senate transportation chairman’s revised budget plan.
Sen. Scott Dibble, DFL-Minneapolis, tabled his earlier proposal at a meeting last week to look for other solutions. Both the House and Senate transportation budget plans had to be scaled back after Gov. Mark Dayton said he would not support an increased gas tax.
Dibble’s plan, like the House’s, would allow all Minnesota counties to charge up to $10 each year per vehicle to fund road and bridge projects, a fee vehicle owners would pay when renewing license tabs.
Twin Cities metropolitan area counties already can impose the tax, but the plans include the whole state.
Dibble’s new $5.78 billion proposal would reduce the gas tax by 6 cents but impose a wholesale tax of 5.5 percent to pay for roads projects. It also includes a metropolitan-area sales tax provision.
The House Transportation Finance Committee moved its bill forward Monday. It included the wheelage tax and optional sales tax. The proposal also would allow counties to impose a half-cent sales tax for transportation projects without requiring residents to vote on it.
Staffing levels studied
The Minnesota House moved forward Wednesday on a plan supported by hospital administration and nurse organizations dealing with staffing levels and patient care.
The bill lawmakers passed 73-58 would create a study of nurse staffing levels and patient outcomes and require Minnesota hospitals to make their staffing plans public.
Bill author Rep. Joe Atkins, DFL-Inver Grove Heights, said the bill is a compromise and has support from the Minnesota Hospital Association and Minnesota Nurses Association.
Originally the proposal was to require certain staffing levels at hospitals. But that was met with opposition from administrators and others who said it would add to labor costs and would not necessarily translate to better care. The bill was changed to the study and staffing information.
Atkins said the study will provide reliable and credible information to see if there is a staffing problem and if it relates to patient care.
The Minnesota Department of Health would convene a working group of industry experts to produce the study, which would be available in 2015.
A number of Republicans said providing and updating the staffing plan information could be an extra burden on hospitals, especially small and rural ones.
“This is an extra mandate at the local level that is unnecessary,” said Rep. Dan Fabian, R-Roseau.
Atkins argued that hospitals already have most or all of the information readily available, but the bill would require it to be compiled in one place.
Some also worried that the study was a way to eventually impose required staffing ratios on hospitals.
“I don’t think what’s going on in this bill is any slam against the policies of the hospitals,” said Rep. Jim Abeler, R-Anoka.
The Senate version of the bill is not significantly different, and Atkins said he hopes the two bodies can come to an agreement on the final language.
Bomb dog brought in
A bomb-sniffing dog was brought to the Capitol this week in response to Monday’s bombings in Boston.
“Out of an abundance of caution, a K-9 was in the Capitol following the Boston bombing for an additional sweep,” said Bruce Gordon, a Public Safety Department spokesman.
He said dog patrols have been used at the Capitol, but many legislative staff members said they have not seen them before.
“There were no known credible threats in Minnesota related to the Boston bombings,” Gordon said.