Friday, May 6, 2011

Higher education conference committee mets; Trustee Englund confirmed; Senior citizens bill moves; State government bill stalled; Congress meets

Legislative Update
May 6, 2011

Conferees hear testimony on the importance of higher education

The higher education conference committee met this week to hear testimony from those organizations affected by the House and Senate higher education bills. Testifying on behalf of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system was Chancellor Jim McCormick who asked conferees to provide the system with as much flexibility as possible so that there are tools available to preserve services to students as budgets are being reduced.

McCormick said the Board of Trustees, presidents, students, faculty and staff have been grappling with the fiscal challenges the state has been facing for several years. He asked conferees to do what they can to minimize budget cuts to the system. He said the colleges and universities enrollment is at a record setting pace, and the institutions want to continue being able to provide the education students seek. McCormick said, “The students and the institutions that comprise the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities are a national success story. We offer high quality, affordable education to the people of Minnesota, and we ask your help in protecting and preserving this public asset in the years ahead.”

Also offering a message of minimizing cuts to higher education was University of Minnesota President Bob Bruininks who said the University of Minnesota is one of the most productive universities in America, and cuts will erode the University's mission. Bruininks said the University expects to be part of the solution, but if the proposed cuts were enacted, it would take them back to 1998. He said state funding is essential to the quality of the University of Minnesota.

Ted Tollefson, Metropolitan State University faculty, informed conferees that he chose to teach at Metropolitan State because he supports the mission of the system; to provide an accessible and affordable education. Tollefson said higher education is an expense, but it is also an investment.

Kevin Lindstrom, Vice President for the Minnesota State College Faculty, told conferees that MSCF is concerned with how the cuts will impact access, quality, the communities they serve, and morale among the faculty. Lindstrom also said that the cuts will force bad decisions that will be the beginning of a downward spiral.

Don Larsson, President of the Inter Faculty Organization, and Russ Stanton, Director of Government Relations for the IFO, both testified that the IFO would like to see improvements in appropriation to the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system. Stanton said the Board of Trustees tuition consultation process with the system should be allowed to work and the Legislature should not set tuition in law. Larsson said the IFO does not support salary caps for presidents or the chancellor. He said Minnesota needs quality people in those positions.

Andrew Spaeth, Chair of the Minnesota State University Student Association told conferees that the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system is a valuable asset for the state of Minnesota. Spaeth also informed members that the best form of financial aid is low tuition, and that cutting the system to fully fund the state grant program sacrifices quality to the system.

Members listened to all the testimony and adjourned the meeting. Co-chair Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, holds the gavel and will call the next conference committee meeting, likely next week.

With two weeks left, lawmakers and governor are not any closer to an agreement

Committees met this week to process policy bills before the final deadline today, and some of the conference committees made progress by adopting provisions that are the same or similar between the House and Senate versions. However, Gov. Dayton asked Republican legislative leaders to pick up the pace on the budget and said he would rather go to a special session than agree to the current legislative budget plan of $34 billion.

Republican leadership has said throughout session that the state will live within its means, and the budget will be at $34 billion, and the ten budget bills reflect that. When asked this week if they would move off that position to avoid a special session, Senate Majority Leader Amy Koch, R-Buffalo, said you need 34 votes in the Senate, 68 votes in the House and ultimately the governor’s signature, and indicated there is a way to work with the governor. Koch went on to say the Republican caucus is not going to raise taxes, but there are two-and-a-half weeks left to continue discussions.

Gov. Dayton continues to say he will negotiate with legislative leadership when they have a single position through passage of the conference committee reports. Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, co-chair of the state government conference committee, said this afternoon that he is disturbed that the governor does not want to engage during the conference committee process. “This means I have no idea how this is going to wrap up by May 23,” Lanning said. Koch said conference committees would meet six days next week and hopes some conference reports might be able to be brought to the floor for a vote. With only two weeks from Monday, Capitol watchers are not very hopeful there will be a May 23 adjournment, but two weeks in the legislative world is actually a very long time. Stay tuned.

Senate confirms Trustee Englund

Senate Higher Education committee members unanimously confirmed Minnesota State Colleges and Universities Board of Trustee member Jacob Englund earlier today. The committee’s confirmation will head next to the Senate floor, where it is to be taken up by the full Senate with the other five trustees confirmed earlier by the committee. Those trustees are: Duane Benson, Phil Krinkie, Alfredo Oliveira, Tom Renier and Michael Vekich.

Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, asked Trustee Englund what he believes to be the most critical issues the system faces. “Students are our number one priority,” Englund said. He said the budget is the biggest issue trustees are currently dealing with, and he tries to think about students when making budget decisions, which includes keeping tuition as low as possible. Englund said he also thinks about students when determining how to maintain a quality education in this time of budget reductions. As a trustee, Englund said he sees his responsibility as meeting the needs of the workforce, providing an affordable education and getting students out the door with a great education.

Senior citizen tuition bill moves through process

On the House floor this week, HF 821, a bill introduced by Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, that reduces the age from 66 to 62 for senior citizens to receive reduced tuition, passed by a vote of 126-4. The Senate also took action on the bill this week. The Senate Higher Education committee took up the bill today and amended it to include language that exempts the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities farm or small business management program that includes on-site individualized instruction, from the tuition benefit.

After a long discussion about the merits of offering free tuition to senior citizens, and at what age the benefit should be offered, if at all, Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, offered an amendment, that was eventually approved, that brings the age to 64 for senior citizen students to receive free tuition. The bill was sent to the floor.

The original senior citizen language (that does not include the two amendments adopted today) is also included in both the House and Senate versions of the higher education finance omnibus bill. As a reminder, this language would reverse the law passed last session that increased the age from 62 to 66.

Stalemate for the state government conference committee

The ten conferees for the state government finance bill met early in the week and adopted policy provisions that were the same or similar in the House and Senate versions of the bill. One of the provisions adopted includes the plan to create a “Sunset Advisory Commission.” This group would be tasked with recommending the abolishment or reorganization of state agencies based on certain criteria like duplicative services. Another provision includes requiring the Department of Administration to issue a request for proposals for a “strategic sourcing initiative” to save money on state procurement.

The House sponsor, Rep. Morrie Lanning, R-Moorhead, said adopting the provisions that are the same or similar between the two bills is the easy part. The bigger question, he said, is the fiscal provisions, which conferees attempted to tackle today. One of the provisions with substantive differences between the House and Senate bill is the salary freeze provision. The House bill exempts Minnesota State Colleges and Universities faculty and administrators from the freeze, but the Senate bill does not. As of the time of this writing, conferees have not debated that specific provision, or any others, because testimony from the affected agencies changed the course of the conference committee meeting.

Commissioners that represent the affected agencies in the state government bill testified to what a 15 percent reduction to their workforce would mean to their respective agencies. Governor Dayton’s Deputy Chief of Staff Michele Kelm-Helgen was asked about the governor’s position on the state government bill. Kelm-Helgen reiterated what Gov. Dayton said publicly this morning, that it is important the House and Senate establish one position in order to be compared to the governor’s position. She said once the positions are clear, then the governor will begin negotiating on the bill. Lanning questioned if the governor understands that his viewpoint will only delay finding a resolution on the budget. Co-Chair Sen. Mike Parry, R-Waseca, asked if the governor think his commissioners should be presenting worst case scenarios to the committee. Kelm-Helgen said that while she cannot speak for him, the governor feels it’s important that the commissioners articulate the potential impacts of the bill.

Chair Parry recessed the committee in order for Minnesota Management and Budget, or MMB, Commissioner Jim Schowalter to provide detail to the conferees regarding the direction provided to the respective commissioners on the bill. During the recess, Lanning and Parry held a press conference and said it’s clear that the agencies believe the bill does a lot of things it does not. Lanning said the commissioners are painting the worst case scenario, which is an exaggeration of the bill. He said the 15 percent reduction to certain agencies is not going to happen right away, but rather over four years, which is a misunderstanding. Lanning also said misinformation is being circulated that the 15 percent reduction is on top of other reductions in other bills, and clarified that every department is not going to receive a 15 percent reduction, but rather it is a goal across the state.

Congress returns to Washington and discusses the debt ceiling

After a brief recess last week for members of Congress to return to their home districts, Congress reconvened this week where the debate has centered on the fiscal year 2012 federal budget and the debt ceiling. House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said this week that trillions in real spending cuts should be made if the debt ceiling is raised. The $14.3 trillion legal limit on borrowing will be reached by Aug. 2, and Republicans are calling for immediate cuts and spending caps as concessions from the Obama Administration to raise the debt limit. Democrats have talked about a debt trigger that would require automatic tax increases or spending cuts later to ensure the debt is declining as a percentage of the economy. The debt ceiling has been raised almost 100 times since the early 1900’s.

Upcoming Education and Workforce Committee hearing

Minnesota Congressman John Kline, Chairman of the Education and Workforce Committee, announced a hearing for Wednesday, May 18, at 9:00 a.m. (CST) on “Removing Inefficiencies in the Nation’s Job Training Programs.” Webcasts of committee hearings are available at:

Here's What's Happening at the Capitol:

This schedule shows all meetings that we are aware of at the time of publication that MAY have an impact on the system. This schedule may change. Please watch the House and Senate schedules posted on the Legislature web site.

Monday, May 9

8:00 AM (will reconvene 30 minutes after session)
Senate Finance
Room: 123 Capitol
Chair: Sen. Claire A. Robling
S.F. 54-Jungbauer: Claims against the state appropriation.
S.F. 288-Howe: Dental laboratories regulations.
S.F. 1244-Dahms: Wetland conservation act provisions modifications; state environmental permit coordination and management requirements; environmental review procedures modifications; consumptive use of water permit authority.
S.F. 920-Gimse: Miscellaneous transportation and highway provisions modifications.
S.F. 918-Gerlach: Microdistilleries and various liquor licenses authorization.
S.F. 1363-Ingebrigtsen: Outdoor heritage fund, clean water fund, parks and trails fund, arts and cultural heritage fund appropriations and provisions modifications; outdoor heritage provisions modifications; Clean Water Legacy Act and clean water council provisions modifications.

8:30 AM
Conference Committee on S.F. 887: Omnibus jobs and economic development
Room: 107 Capitol
Chairs: Sen. Geoff Michel and Rep. Bob Gunther
SENATE: Michel; Pederson; Miller; Daley; Lillie
HOUSE: Gunther; Hoppe; McFarlane; Sanders; Kieffer
S.F. 887-Michel: Omnibus jobs and economic growth and development appropriations.

8:30 AM
Conference Committee on H.F. 42: Omnibus tax bill
Room: 15 Capitol
Chairs: Sen. Julianne E. Ortman and Rep. Greg Davids
SENATE: Ortman; Rosen; Senjem; Chamberlain; Limmer
HOUSE: Davids; Lenczewski; Runbeck; Anderson; Loon
Agenda: H.F. 42-Ortman: Omnibus tax bill.

9:00 AM
Conference Committee on S.F. 1030: K-12 education
Room: 5 State Office Building
Chairs: Sen. Gen Olson and Rep. Pat Garofalo
SENATE: Olson; Nelson; Thompson; Kruse; Wolf
HOUSE: Garofalo; Kelly; Doepke; Fabian; Erickson
Agenda: S.F. 1030-Olson, G.: Omnibus early childhood through grade 12 education policy provisions modifications and appropriations.

10:30 AM
Senate in Session

Tuesday, May 10

10:15 AM
House Capital Investment
Room: 10 State Office Building
Chair: Rep. Larry Howes
Agenda: HF959 (Howes) Flood hazard mitigation grant funding provided, bonds issued, and money appropriated.

Wednesday, May 11
3:00 PM (or 15 minutes after session)
Senate Capital Investment
Room: 123 Capitol
Chair: Sen. David H. Senjem
Agenda: To be announced

6:30 PM
Legislative Commission on Pensions and Retirement
Room: 10 State Office Building
Chair: Rep. Morrie Lanning
H.F. 409 (Poppe); S.F. xxxx: IRAP/TRA; MnSCU employee retirement coverage specified, and employer required to provide certain notices.
H.F. 1354 (Lesch); S.F. 1088 (Pappas): SPTRFA; Postretirement adjustment procedures revised, refund interest rate reduced, interest payments on reemployed annuitant savings accounts terminated, and deferred annuity augmentation rate lowered.
H.F. 1628 (Murphy, M.); S.F. xxxx: DTRFA; Definition for vesting added, and leave of absence, retirement, survivor, and disability benefits eligibility modified.
H.F. 1668 (Murphy, M.); S.F. xxxx: PERA; Duluth and Duluth Airport Authority optional correction of erroneous employee deductions and employer contributions.
H.F. 1528 (Morrow); S.F. 1277 (Sheran): MSRS; Increased annuity for survivors of DOT employee killed while engaged in emergency response to flooding.
Other Items as Designated by the Commission Chair.