Bill would slow college tuition hikes

ST. PAUL -- College students would see some financial reprieve in a Minnesota House higher education finance package, but a controversial provision puts the entire bill's future in doubt.

ST. PAUL -- College students would see some financial reprieve in a Minnesota House higher education finance package, but a controversial provision puts the entire bill's future in doubt.

Representatives on Thursday approved $3.2 billion funding the University of Minnesota campuses, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system and other education initiatives.

Cash-strapped college students were the focus of discussion before the bill passed 95-37.

House higher education Chairman Tom Rukavina said students told his committee they are having difficulty affording school. Tuition costs have increased 70 percent over the past six years.

"The debt we place on them I just don't think can be sustained," said Rukavina, DFL-Virginia.


Before the bill was amended, Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system officials promised that if the House passed its bill, they would hold tuition increases to 2 percent each of the next two years, Rukavina said. The University of Minnesota planned to keep its increases to no more than 4.5 percent a year, he added.

House Minority Leader Marty Seifert, R-Marshall, convinced lawmakers to amend the bill so tuition at state colleges and universities would remain flat in the second year of the budget.

Besides adding money to public colleges, Rukavina's bill includes $7 million for a scholarship fund for middle-class students attending Minnesota colleges.

The bill also provides $20 million for financial benefits for military veterans and includes $1 million to study rising college textbook prices. Another $12 million would be used to adjust tuition rates at the University of Minnesota's Duluth, Crookston and Morris campuses so they are in line with what students pay at the Twin Cities site.

Additional higher education spending is provided by better state tax collections due to a growing economy as well as increasing taxes on some businesses with overseas sites.

Some lawmakers questioned a provision allowing illegal immigrants who've completed three years of high school and graduated to pay resident tuition at Minnesota colleges.

Rep. Dan Severson, R-Sauk Rapids, urged lawmakers to remove the so-called Dream Act. Thirteen Minnesota colleges already have the policy.

"That means that this provision is not required," Severson said.


Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, told lawmakers it is wrong for people to be in the United States illegally, but immigration is a complicated issue.

"They're young kids," he said.

Severson's amendment failed 71-61. Pawlenty, a Republican, said he won't agree to higher education legislation containing the Dream Act.

"If they purposefully want to have the bill vetoed, that's their choice," Pawlenty said during a Thursday press briefing.

Seifert said more House Republicans would have supported the bill if the Dream Act wasn't included.

House Majority Leader Tony Sertich, DFL-Chisholm, pointed out what, for most Minnesotans, is the most important provision in the House higher education funding bill: "The era of double-digit tuition increases is over."

Many candidates in last year's state campaigns said they would like to freeze tuition, but Rukavina said on Thursday: "We don't have enough money to freeze it."

Rep. Sandy Wollschlager, DFL-Cannon Falls, said the bill helps make college more affordable.


"This legislation gets tuition increases under control and begins to open doors for Minnesota students," Wollschlager said.

On the Dream Act, Rukavina said he likes the idea of allowing immigrants to get a tuition break.

"Whether you are a Finn or a Croatian-Italian, we came here to build America and work -- to build a dream," he said.

Rukavina said he is not worried about Pawlenty's threat to veto any bill containing the Dream Act.

"The governor puffs and rants and raves some times," the lawmaker said.

Rukavina said he expects no problems working out differences with the Senate higher education bill.

State Capitol Bureau reporters Don Davis and Mike Longaecker contributed to this story.

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