A budget bill that would freeze undergraduate tuition at the state's public colleges and universities earned swift passage Thursday in the Minnesota House.

Lawmakers from both parties praised the higher education funding bill and its architect, Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, for holding down tuition, banning bonuses and tightening the Legislature's scrutiny of the two public systems. The bill passed 86-44.

"You understand what needs to be done to bring accountability to the higher-ed situation," Rep. Glenn Gruenhagen, R-Glencoe, told Pelowski before voting for the bill.

The bill spends $2.7 billion over two years. Of the $150 million in new funding, about 80 percent goes "directly to students," Pelowski said, either for tuition freezes or grants. It requires the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities to submit detailed budget reports, with spending per student and by funding source.

"We're going to make sure that if any of these systems come to raise tuition again, there will be accountability as to how and why," said Pelowski.

Next, the bill heads to conference committee to be weighed against the Senate version passed last week. That $2.8 billion bill raises spending by $263 million. Like the House bill, it funds a tuition freeze for University of Minnesota in-state undergraduates, as suggested by the U in its budget request. But the Senate bill does not freeze MnSCU tuition, instead prohibiting that system from raising tuition by more than 3 percent a year.

Differences over freeze

Sen. Terri Bonoff, chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee, fought off an amendment that would have frozen MnSCU tuition, arguing that the system needs new investments to boost quality.

"While you think you might be doing our students a favor, I would suggest that a hard freeze … is not in the best interest for our students," Bonoff said. "They have told us that."

But for months, House committee members have made clear that they would focus on tuition, rather than new programs. All of the House bill's new funding for MnSCU, $78 million, goes toward two years of tuition freezes for undergraduates. The bill prohibits the system of state universities and two-year colleges from raising tuition for two years.

"It is time to send a strong message to the institutions themselves," said Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley. "If the public is putting more money into higher education, the students are the ones that should benefit.

"As representatives of the taxpayers, we have the authority — we have the right — to decide what we want to buy in higher education."

U money tied to goals

The Senate bill ties 5 percent of the University of Minnesota's funding to its meeting three of five performance goals, which include increasing graduation rates for low-income students by 1 percent and cutting administrative costs by $15 million.

Pelowski has said that the final higher education bill could incorporate both the House's reporting goals and the Senate's performance measures. Pelowski fended off several amendments proposed Thursday meant to add "some additional accountability," as one author, Rep. Mike Benson, R-Rochester, put it.

Pelowski said he was "extremely sympathetic" to the amendments' intent but questioned whether they were written as well as language he fashioned with the legislative auditor. He promised that his committee would continue its work, between sessions, to draft even stronger measures.

Several Republicans praised Pelowski's work. The past chair of the higher education committee, Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, said that this committee "put both of the systems on notice, and that was probably long overdue."

House Majority Leader Erin Murphy cheered Republicans for voting for the bill but asked them to consider paying for it, too.

"Voting for the investments in education and not for the revenue is a little like eating the pie before the pot roast," she said.