Friday, January 16, 2009

January 12 - 16, 2009 Week in Review

Governor Pawlenty delivers state of the state address
Gov. Tim Pawlenty addressed the legislative body this week by reminding lawmakers that the challenges the state is facing are the worst we have seen in a long time. Pawlenty said, “Let’s give Minnesotans confidence” that leaders will address these challenges. After the speech, legislative leaders said they expect to work cooperatively with the governor to accomplish that goal.

Online, tuition caps, salary freezes, jobs and education reform were all focuses of the governor’s state-of-the-state address. “It’s time our colleges and universities move more aggressively to deliver more of their courses online,” Pawlenty said. He praised the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities for accepting the challenge to deliver 25 percent of credits online by 2015. The governor also recommended a cap on tuition. “Otherwise, the necessary changes in higher education we will make this session will fall too heavily on students and their families.” Pawlenty did not specifically mention what the tuition cap would be. As part of the solution to the state’s budget deficit, the governor also called for a two-year wage freeze on all state workers to minimize layoffs.

Other points of the address included job growth and primary education reform. Acknowledging that the state is facing a significant number of job losses, Pawlenty proposed that Minnesota grow jobs by offering tax breaks to businesses. In K-12 education, his two focuses were increasing the Q-comp pay for high achieving teachers across the state of Minnesota and making teachers more prepared for their jobs. “We have minimum requirements for pharmacists, dentists, engineers and just about every other profession,” he said. “We should have minimum entrance standards for people who do our most important job, educating our children.”

The governor will announce his budget recommendations Jan. 27. It is likely some of the ideas presented in this speech will be represented in his budget proposal. The Legislature then will craft a House and Senate budget. The legislative session wraps up May 18, which gives lawmakers only four months to solve the budget problem.

Senate Assistant Majority Leader Tarryl Clark, DFL-St. Cloud, said: “The House and Senate will continue to focus on building our economy by helping to create and retain jobs while streamlining government. We look forward to seeing the governor's budget later this month and getting public input so we can get a more complete view of how his vision for the state will affect people.”

You may find the governor’s speech here.

Senate Web site available for public to provide budget solution ideas
As reported last week, the House of Representatives has a Web site available to the public to suggest budget-solving suggestions to lawmakers here. As of last week, Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, said the site had received more than 750 public comments. This week, the Senate launched a new Web site to provide state budget information and gather ideas from Minnesotans to aid legislators as they work to solve the budget deficit. The Web site can be found here.

Minnesota State Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, said he believes the Web page will be a great benefit to legislators as they try to solve the state’s $4.8 billion budget deficit over the next few months. “We absolutely need guidance and ideas from the public as we try to solve this historic deficit,” Pogemiller said.

Senate Minority Leader David Senjem, R-Rochester, said, “This site will allow Minnesotans an excellent opportunity to examine the state budget and offer suggestions and comments on how to solve the deficit with common-sense reforms.” Senjem added that all suggestions, large or small, are welcome and that the ideas gathered will help the Senate develop a budget that reflects the values and needs of Minnesota communities.

New Minnesota Miracle

The House K-12 Finance Division held meetings around the state this past interim to obtain constituent feedback regarding the new Minnesota Miracle plan. The new Minnesota Miracle, HF2, would reform education finance and provide $600 million of property tax relief. Full implementation of the bill would cost between $2 billion and $2.5 billion, said Greiling, the author of the bill. However, she said it could begin with “just one penny” because it offers a scalable plan intended to be phased in as funding is secured. Rep. John Ward, DFL-Brainerd, the division vice chair, said constituent feedback was positive and influenced changes in the bill language.

House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, said the bill might be the “New Minnesota Mirage,” and characterized the all-day kindergarten portion as an entitlement program. He added that the state cannot afford the overall bill at this time of budget shortfalls. There is no Senate companion at this time.

You may locate the full bill here.

Senate visits Normandale Community College
The Senate Higher Education Budget and Policy Division visited Normandale Community College this week. During the visit, college President Joe Opatz said the demographics of the students are changing. “We are now serving nearly one-quarter minority students,” he said. The committee also toured the dental hygiene and nursing facilities. On Thursday evenings, Normandale Community College dental students and dentists serve community members in need of dental care. “People will drive hours to get treatment,” said Colleen Brickle, interim dean of health sciences. Committee members also had an opportunity to learn about the college’s science labs. The labs are different than most since they are open all day for students to drop in, and labs for different courses are located in the same room. This gives students a chance to learn about different science classes and collaborate on projects. The trip to Normandale Community College was one of the many site visits that the committee will take this session. There are plans to go to a private college, a for-profit institute and the University of Minnesota.

Recommendation from State Budget Trends Study Commission
A joint meeting of the House Taxes and Finance committees heard recommendations from the State Budget Trends Study Commission. The commission, which was established in the 2007 omnibus state government finance law, said Minnesota needs to change the way it handles its money if it wants to stop the roller coaster of deficits and surpluses.

The purpose of the 15-member commission, appointed by the governor, House and Senate, was to study the implications of state demographic trends for future state budget conditions, including expected revenue collections and spending for state government services and local services supported by state revenues. Some recommendations from the commission include having a budget reserve of at least $2.1 billion, based on the current state budget; creating a structurally balanced budget for the current and following biennium; and releasing a demographic forecast at the start of each biennium. The Senate Tax Committee will hear from the commission Wednesday of next week.

Higher education performance discussed in Senate committee
Senate Higher Education Budget and Policy Division members heard from the Minnesota Office of Higher Education this week on higher education performance. Susan Heegaard, director of the Office of Higher Education, presented an accountability report on higher education that outlined five state goals for postsecondary institutions. The goals focus on improving the success of all students, increasing student learning, increasing affordability and access, and creating a system that will produce graduates who can contribute to the development of the state's economy and compete globally.

Heegaard said Minnesota ranks quite high nationally in categories like degree attainment, retention rate and advanced placement testing. Heegaard also said that even though Minnesota has a fairly high rate of access and choice for students looking to enter into postsecondary education, the state still needs to make dramatic improvements in the area of affordability. The full report can be found here.

Tricia Grimes, policy analyst for the Office of Higher Education, presented Measuring Up, a report that is primarily used to provide policymakers with information they can use to assess and improve postsecondary education in each state.

Grimes said that Measuring Up showed that Minnesota performs very well in awarding certificates and degrees compared to other states, with 60 percent of college students completing a bachelor's degree within six years. Grimes also said that Minnesota performs fairly well in preparing its young people for college and in providing college opportunities for its residents.

Grimes concluded by saying that all states received an incomplete in learning because there is not sufficient data to allow meaningful state-by-state comparisons. Additionally, Grimes said that, like Minnesota, all states but California were given an "F" in affordability due an increase in tuition without a comparable increase in available grants. California received a “C.”

You may locate the complete 2008 Measuring Up report here.

Legislative leaders would like Minnesota to share in any potential economic stimulus package
As legislators look at ways to solve the $4.8 billion budget deficit, House Speaker Margaret Anderson Kelliher, DFL-Minneapolis, intends to let Minnesota’s Congressional delegation know that the state would like to see some of the potential economic stimulus package coming to the state of Minnesota. “We typically end up on the short end of the stick on a lot of these things coming from the federal government,” Kelliher said this week at a press conference. Kelliher said she’s got her work cut out in trying to better understand the proposed legislation, especially the part of the package directed toward job retention. Her concern is that the Legislature has a say over any money coming into the state from the federal government. “We’re going to make sure we know what the facts are in terms of when the money comes into the state and how it can best help the recovery process for Minnesotans,” she said. DFL House leadership will head to Washington D.C. this weekend for Tuesday's inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States as well as to discuss a potential stimulus package with Minnesota’s federal leaders.

Stimulate the economy: $825 billion proposed
Higher education may benefit from an $825 billion stimulus package proposed by the U. S. House of Representatives this week. The recommendation contains incentives for students including a $500 increase in the federal Pell Grant and more work study funding. Under the package, the Hope tax credits would increase to $2,500 per year. Students also could borrow up to $2,000 more in unsubsidized loans. If passed, the proposal also would provide $8.7 billion to update infrastructures at public colleges and universities, making them more energy efficient. Before becoming law, this legislation would have to be passed by the House and Senate and then signed by the President. A full summary of the proposal can be found here.