Higher education good investment for Minnesota

The “nudging” begins.

That’s what Minnesota Higher Education Commissioner Larry Pogemiller calls the process in which the Legislature holds conference committees to discuss among other things, budget proposals.

Pogemiller visited the Southwest Minnesota State University campus Tuesday morning. He met with SMSU President Connie Gores and took a tour to inspect some of the areas needing infrastructure improvements. He also held a roundtable discussion with students.

Pogemiller is not the first Gov. Mark Dayton cabinet official to visit Marshall recently. Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Tom Landwehr visited in March.

Dayton has dispatched his commissioners on tours of the state to mostly draw support for the governor’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2018-19.

Dayton is facing a stiff wind with his proposals because Republicans controlling both the House and the Senate are more in a mood to cut taxes than make investments. Dayton, meanwhile wants to use a $1.65 billion budget surplus to make investments in such things as infrastructure and education.

Dayton is proposing a $318 million increase to higher education, while the Senate is offering a $100 million increase and the House $150 million.

That’s a huge gap. Dayton is also proposing a $62 million increase in state grant funding, while the Senate is only offering $10 million and the House $26 million.

The governor is also proposing $3.1 million to cover some of the Higher Education Asset Preservation and Renewal (HEAPR) funding and individual capital projects and initiatives.

And to further complicate the negotiations, the House bill calls for a Minnesota State system tuition freeze at the 2017-18 academic year rate in the second year of the biennium. There is also a Legislature proposal to prevent universities from charging fees for extra curricular activities.

After touring the state Pogemiller will join forces with Dayton to persuade House and the Senate Republicans to raise their funding levels.

Pogemiller’s message to Republicans:

“You need you to kind of back off the tax cuts a little bit and do a bit more investment.”

He also made a number of other points:

• A tuition freeze puts the people managing the campuses in a real bind. If the institutions don’t get adequate funding increases and can’t increase tuition, it magnifies operational problems.

• SMSU officials are concerned less funding for taking care of basic infrastructure issues will soon impact the ability to provide a high-quality of academic choices.

“We need to give these guys some flexibility to run this place,” Pogemiller said.

No. 1, reasonable investments into education will make Minnesota even stronger.

No. 2, if you freeze tuition, ban fees, how do you expect public higher education institutions to make up the difference with inadequate funding from the state?

A recent Minneapolis Star Tribune editorial pointed out that Minnesota spends less per student at public two-year community and technical colleges in 2013-14 than many surrounding states. Minnesota spent $3,876 per student, while Iowa was at $5,590 and Wisconsin was at $12,432.

The Star Tribune also pointed out that Minnesota ranked among the top 10 in per capita taxpayer support from the 1970s to 2003. Since then Minnesota has fallen to as low as 25th among the 50 states in 2012-13.

There’s a big downside to underfunding higher education. Neglecting infrastructure maintenance and lowering the quality of academic offerings is just kicking the can down the road. It will hurt the state’s reputation and increase the percentages for infrastructure disasters.

Nudge those numbers up a little more.