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Minnesota lawmakers discuss proposed cuts to higher education

Sheila Wright, Higher Education Commissioner, speaks passionately about the need for the state to support the area's local colleges, both to educate students to high standards as well as to serve as a driver for the economy and jobs. At left is UMD Chancellor Lendley Black. He, other college presidents and area legislators met Tuesday at the UMD Library on the impact of the state budget on higher education. (Bob King /

Brent Tweet said he used to be content to let politicians handle the issues of the day.

Not anymore.

He's been homeless and he's been in jail, but today he said he's a successful student and vocal member of the student senate at Lake Superior College in Duluth.

"If it wasn't for student loans and grants, I'd still be at the bottom ... just trying to survive," he said. "I would have no hope at all."

His story was one of those told Tuesday during a Duluth visit from Higher Education Commissioner Sheila Wright, DFL House Minority Leader Paul Thissen and other Democratic members of the Minnesota House of Representatives. They came to discuss with community members and local higher education officials the impact of the proposed Minnesota state budget on higher education institutions in the region -- specifically the Republican-led bill Democrats say would include the largest cuts to colleges and universities in Minnesota history.

Bills approved by the House and Senate last month set a $2.5 billion two-year budget for state-run colleges and universities. That is down from $2.8 billion in the current budget.

Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, said at the time his bill allows schools to make up a third of their lost money by raising tuitions, while also capping those increases. Both the House and Senate bills place a limit on how much colleges and universities may raise tuition, ranging from 2 percent to 5 percent.

Both bills also increase funding for grants available to students attending public and private schools.

But Wright said Minnesota's higher education system now is at risk.

"Never before have we been at this crossroads," she said.

Rep. Thomas Huntley, DFL-Duluth, was one of many who said drastically cutting the higher education budget doesn't make fiscal sense. Huntley said for every dollar invested in higher education, the state gets $18 back.

"The whole underlying thing is education of the work force," he said.

A reduction in state aid could leave UMD with a cut of $7 million over the next two years, which UMD Chancellor Lendley Black said would have a real impact, considering the university is one of the biggest economic drivers in the region. He said he expected at least 65 jobs would be eliminated.

Minnesota Lt. Gov. Yvonne Prettner Solon said the Republican bill does not show that they are interested in jobs for Minnesotans.

"This is not the way to get our economy going," she said.