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Bemidji State University fears cuts may be ahead as legislators debate funding

BEMIDJI, Minn.—The latest higher education plan by Minnesota legislators would send tens of millions more to Minnesota State colleges and universities but could still mean multi-million dollar budget cuts at Bemidji State University.

A joint committee of House and Senate members found a middle ground last month between their competing higher education bills that would send another $78 million over the next two years to Minnesota State, which asked for more than twice that figure. Projections from BSU finance staff indicate the university would face a $2.5 million to $2.8 million deficit next year under that proposal.

Lawmakers have been pushing to get a series of budget bills on Gov. Mark Dayton's desk, but Dayton has said he will veto each of the five he has already received.

The Senate was set to vote on the higher education bill Wednesday, but paused in the afternoon so Sen. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, could head home to be with her ailing father.

State higher education leaders asked legislators for $178 million next biennium on top of the $1.34 billion Minnesota State—the college and university system, formerly "MNSCU"—already receives. A total of $143 million of that request would go toward "campus support," $25 million toward a statewide technology upgrade, and $10 million toward grants for students.

Even under that proposal, BSU staff predict a $1.8 million dollar shortfall next fiscal year, assuming steady enrollment and tuition rates.

State senators proposed bumping Minnesota State's total allocation by $45 million next biennium, which would mean a $2.8 million deficit at BSU next year. The House's proposal would send almost twice as much new money, but would still mean a $2.5 million deficit.

The conference committee agreement occupies a middle-ground between those two proposals, but is still less than Minnesota State requested or figures outlined in Gov. Mark Dayton's sweeping state budget proposal, which would have increased the system's funding by $125 million over the next two years. Dayton and legislative leaders are expected to work toward common ground between his proposal and their aggregate one.

Larry Pogemiller, the commissioner of the state's office of higher education, decried legislators' proposals in a conference call with reporters last week.

"At the level of the House and the Senate, low and middle-income families will not to be able to avoid more debt because there'll be not enough need-based aid, and the quality and affordability at (Minnesota) State and the U (University of Minnesota) is at risk," Pogemiller said. "This will hurt our workforce and economy."

BSU officials have said the school will not operate at a deficit, but have yet to make public any specific proposals to close the projected gap.

The Legislature is set to conclude this year's regular session later this month, and the university will presumably set its budget in June before the next fiscal year begins July 1.

Joe Bowen

Joe Bowen covers education and health for the Bemidji Pioneer.

He is a Minneapolis native and a 2009 graduate of St. John's University. Before moving to Bemidji, Bowen covered education, local politics, crime, and everything in between for the Perham Focus in Perham, Minnesota, and Sun Newspapers in suburban Minneapolis.

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