A marker of the sorry state that Minnesota is in was the scene in Capitol Room 112 at 5:30 p.m. Saturday. The president of the University of Minnesota and chancellor of Minnesota State Colleges and Universities were hastily summoned to meet with legislative leaders and plead to be spared an additional $190 million spending cut proposed by Gov. Tim Pawlenty.
Their pleas were not only for their institutions, but for this state's future. In the global economic competition of coming decades, Minnesota's greatest strength is its well-educated workforce. That's at risk, if Pawlenty's new proposed cuts are added to the $60 million in higher education reductions already approved by the Legislature this year.
The cuts the Republican governor proposed Saturday would be in league with the ones adopted in 2003. That squeeze in state money was followed by four years of double-digit tuition increases. That wouldn't be possible, if the tuition cap included in the omnibus higher education bill holds. What's more, said Chancellor James McCormick, "the debt levels of some of our students is a very serious problem for our future in Minnesota." This time, the likely options for MnSCU and the University of Minnesota would run more heavily toward faculty layoffs, program elimination, and enrollment caps. When asked about the option of closing a campus, McCormick said "everything has to be on the table."
Pawlenty is asking the DFL-controlled Legislature to agree to his proposed cuts. But implicit in his proposal is the alternative he originally proposed, borrowing $1 billion against future revenues. That's a fiscally irresponsible choice, rejected by the House recently on a 131-2 vote. What's becoming apparent is that by rejecting any tax increase to help close the state's $6.4 billion budget gap, Pawlenty is inviting legislators to choose between the irresponsible and the unconscionable.