Legislative Notebook: Higher Ed OK’d

By Danielle Killey

Minnesota representatives approved increasing by $150 million spending on state colleges and universities.

“Higher education, perhaps more than any other area, has been neglected for a long time,” said Rep. Jay McNamar, DFL-Elbow Lake. “This increase will help make college more affordable for Minnesota students. We still have work to do, but this is a good start.”

The House voted 86-44 Thursday on the $2.7 billion funding plan that directs much of its money toward making college more affordable.

“Tuition and debt are the two biggest fundamental problems in higher education,” said bill sponsor Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona.

About $78 million for Minnesota State Colleges and Universities and $42.6 million for the University of Minnesota is dedicated to tuition freezes in the next two years.

The systems would get about $1.2 billion and $1 billion, respectively.

The bill also includes about $18 million for a University of Minnesota research program and nearly $11 million for state grants and debt relief programs.

The public college and university systems must report more information to the state, such as specifics on expenditures and how state money is used, which Pelowski said will increase accountability.

“Our colleges and universities are facing the same scrutiny that our state agencies do,” said Rep. Roger Erickson, DFL-Baudette.

Some lawmakers said they want even more oversight, and Pelowski said he will push for that in the future.

The University of Minnesota Board of Regents must take official action supporting a tuition freeze before the state will give the money dedicated to that under Pelowski’s bill, he said.

“Last year the Legislature made record cuts to higher education in the state budget, and tuition has nearly doubled at state colleges and universities over the past decade,” said Rep. John Ward, DFL-Baxter. “This is a great bill that will help our students and ensure that our higher education institutions are held accountable for the money they spend.”

Rep. Steve Drazkowski, R-Mazeppa, said the bill generally was good but the spending was too high.

Transportation bill passes

The House passed a transportation finance plan 101-30 late Wednesday, although its author acknowledged it is not enough to meet state needs.

“We really wanted to have a bill that would move the state significantly forward for our commerce, for our businesses, for our job creation, for mobility, for jobs,” said Rep. Frank Hornstein, DFL-Minneapolis. “And we don’t quite have that bill here before us. But I’m optimistic and hopeful we’re going to get there.”

Transportation proposals in the House and Senate were scaled back after Gov. Mark Dayton said he would not support a gas tax.

The proposal does allow all Minnesota counties to establish a wheelage tax, charging up to $10 each year per vehicle to fund road and bridge projects, and authorizes greater Minnesota counties to set up optional sales taxes and put funds toward transit projects.

The bill would spend about $1.7 billion on road and bridge construction over the next two years and increase greater Minnesota transit spending by $11.6 million.

It also increases the driver’s license filing fee from $5 to $8.

Sick leave changed

Workers would be able to use their sick leave to care for a child, spouse, sibling, parent or grandparent under a bill the House approved 100-31 Thursday.

The AARP praised the proposed change.

“Without access to paid sick leave, too many caregivers have been forced to choose between the care of their loved one and the economic security of their family,” state director Michele Kimball of AARP said. “Today’s bipartisan House vote will change that once and for all.”

The Senate has approved a similar bill, and the differences must be ironed out before final approval.

American Indian memorial

A plaque honoring Minnesota American Indian veterans will be installed in the Capitol grounds’ court of honor.

A law allowing the plaque, sponsored by Rep. John Persell, DFL-Bemidji, and Sen. Rod Skoe, DFL-Clearbrook, was signed Wednesday by Gov. Mark Dayton.

False 911 penalties

Making a fake 911 call can now result in misdemeanor charges under a law signed Wednesday by Gov. Mark Dayton.

Rep. Steve Simon, DFL-Hopkins, and Sen. Susan Kent, DFL-Woodbury, sponsored the bill that also labels a second offense as a gross misdemeanor and three or more as a felony.

Power of attorney form changes

Gov. Mark Dayton signed a law Wednesday aimed at more clearly explaining the role of a power of attorney on paperwork.

The document is often used to set out financial responsibilities in preparation for future possible incapacitation or inability to make such decisions.

The law also prohibits the person taking over power of attorney from giving himself or herself money unless authorized to do so and caps gifts to others.

House Public Information contributed to this story.