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Closing college among budget options

ST. PAUL -- Current economic conditions could cost the state a college, the Minnesota Colleges and Universities system chancellor warns.

"This is such as difficult challenge that the board has suggested that everything is on the table," James McCormick told the state Senate Higher Education Committee Thursday.

McCormick said, however, that no college is targeted and a decision to close a school has not been made.

McCormick and University of Minnesota President Bob Bruininks warned the committee that Gov. Tim Pawlenty's proposed 8.2 percent cut in higher education funding would be devastating.

"We know our role is more than simply doing less with less," Bruininks said, adding that times of economic distress are when more people attend college classes.

Pawlenty proposes cutting higher education from the $3 billion it receives in the current budget to $2.8 billion in the two-year budget that begins July 1.

The state faces a nearly $5 billion budget deficit now, and most experts expect it to grow to between $6 billion to $7 billion in the next month. Legislators and Pawlenty are examining ways to cut state programs and take other actions to balance the budget.

Bruininks said the higher education budget cut is larger than many state agencies would face, and comes at a time when education is most needed.

"I think this reduction is disproportionate..." Bruininks said. "It is contrary to the very best thinking we have in this state and all around the world about what it will take to (get) this state and this country back to economic prosperity."

Bruininks said state funding has been declining for years. "I think state support for higher education is on the wrong trajectory."

MnSCU vice chancellor Laura King said her system's 32 schools would fire 1,000 employees - about 15 percent of the staff - if that was the only way to make up for state funding loses.

"I believe we are going to be cutting K-12 education," Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, said. "That is the reality."

Pawlenty, a Republican, said he will not cut public school education.

"The governor's supplemental budget will not increase taxes and will not cut education," Finance Commissioner Tom Hanson told a Senate committee Thursday.

Senate Taxes Chairman Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, told Hanson the governor cannot hold education harmless in the budget crisis because it is 40 percent of the budget.

"You cannot pull 40 percent of the budget off the table and hope to accomplish this," Bakk said of balancing the budget.

Added Pogemiller: "I implore the executive branch to be more realistic in the next budget. ... We are in a deteriorating situation."

"If they intend to raise taxes and cut K-12 education funding, they should come out and admit it so Minnesotans will know where Democrats in the Legislature stand," House Minority Leader Marty Seifert (R-Marshall), said. "I can tell you that as I travel the state, there aren't a lot of people who ask me to raise their taxes and cut funding to their schools."

Davis writes for Forum Communications Co., which owns the Daily Globe.

Don Davis
Don Davis has been the Forum Communications Minnesota Capitol Bureau chief since 2001, covering state government and politics for two dozen newspapers in the state. Don also blogs at Capital Chatter on Areavoices.