U president furious about bill to cut 14.4%

  • Article by: JENNA ROSS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 14, 2011 - 8:34 AM

Bruininks predicts layoffs, a wage freeze and higher tuition to offset state budget squeeze.

The day after lawmakers finished work on their higher education funding bill, University of Minnesota President Robert Bruininks previewed how he would handle the cuts.

A wage freeze. Employees paying more for health care. Layoffs.

"I'm hot as hell about it," Bruininks said of the bill after a Board of Regents meeting where he outlined how he would grapple with it. "The size of the cut is way out of proportion to the size of higher education in the state budget, which means we're really taking it in the neck."

The regents will review and vote on a detailed budget -- which will be based on the "worst case scenario'' -- during two meetings in June.

Bruininks blasted the higher education bill, passed by a House and Senate conference committee Thursday. It would cut the university's funding by 14.4 percent from this year -- or about 18.9 percent from the forecast base. The bill cuts the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, the state's other public higher education system, by double digits, too.

The spending bill that passed Thursday often splits the difference between cuts called for in Senate and House versions. In total, it slashes $306 million from higher education -- much more than proposed by Gov. Mark Dayton. His budget proposes cutting current funding by 2.3 percent, or $66 million.

Bruininks' budget for the coming year will use reductions and efficiencies to solve two-thirds of the "total budget challenge" created by state funding cuts plus increasing costs, he told the regents. About one-third will come from revenue, including tuition increases.

Matt Privratsky, a student representative to the Board of Regents, said that while students are concerned about tuition, they also worry about cuts that affect faculty and staff: "At what point does efficiency turn into poor quality?"

Bruininks said he will propose a one-year wage freeze, subject to union agreements. He hopes to shift about $11 million in health care costs to employees, in part through increased copayments. He advised lowering the U's contribution to the faculty retirement plan from 13 percent to 10 percent for new employees, which would save $3 million the first year.

Health care concerns

Asked whether the funding cuts passed Thursday would mean immediate layoffs, Bruininks said yes, but declined to give more detail.

Several of his proposals concern Phyllis Walker, president of AFSCME Local 3800, which represents about 1,600 clerical workers at the U. She said the health care proposal, in particular, would burden the U's lowest-paid workers.

"Our members have told us they are not going to put up with any more health insurance increases," she said Friday. She recommended that instead the U cut the pay of its administrators and middle managers.

Criticism of caps

The higher ed spending bill also caps tuition increases at 3, 4 or 5 percent, depending on the type of institution and the year. The language would be law for MnSCU but only advisory for the U, which is autonomous from the state.

"The goal of the bill was to ensure students didn't bear the brunt of these reductions," said Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, when the House passed its version of the higher ed spending bill.

Bruininks promised Friday that undergraduate tuition increases would be kept in the single digits and said the U is modeling a 5 percent tuition increase for Minnesota residents. That's within the bounds of the bill's 5 percent cap.

Bruininks criticized the caps -- as well as other policy provisions in the spending bill, which he said is the most "over-regulated" he's seen in his 42 years as a professor and administrator at the U. He will step down as president in June.

"I think it's terribly hypocritical to pound the devil out of the University of Minnesota's budget four years in a row and then be real preachy about limits on tuition," Bruininks said. "We know we have to keep higher education affordable. That's job one at the University of Minnesota."

Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168

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