U of M president says gas tax would free up money for higher education

  • Article by: JEFF SHELMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 24, 2008 - 12:34 PM

Robert Bruininks said the governor's plan to use bonding money for roads takes too much away from education.

University of Minnesota President Robert Bruininks acknowledges that the state needs to solve significant transportation problems.

But he also said roads and bridges shouldn't be paid for at the expense of investments in higher education.

Because of that, Bruininks said Wednesday that legislators need to at least consider an increase in either the gas tax or sales tax.

"We have to come to grips with the state's transportation needs," Bruininks said. "We have an enormous backlog of need in roads, bridges, public transit. We need a long-term strategy and we simply, in my judgment, can't get there with trying to address those issues through the bonding program.

"This is a time when we ought to seriously consider a gas tax increase and perhaps a sales tax increase dedicated to transportation. We need additional resources to take that pressure off of the general fund of Minnesota."

When Gov. Tim Pawlenty -- who has twice vetoed bills that would have paid for bridge and road repairs through a gas tax -- announced his capital investment plan last week, higher education took what Bruininks considered to be too much of a financial hit.

"Higher education is typically 35 percent of the bonding recommendation and the number now is 23 percent," Bruininks said. "That's a very significant gap on almost $1 billion."

Pawlenty's plan calls for the U of M and MnSCU to each receive $129 million that will be used for new buildings and renovations of current facilities. The U of M had requested $225.5 million from the state and would have contributed an additional $62.8 of its own funds. MnSCU had requested $272.9 million from the state, it would also provide another $77.3 million for the projects.

Because of that, both systems acknowledge that generating grass-roots support will be as important as ever. On Wednesday night, Bruininks told a crowd of several hundred university supporters simply: "We're going to need your help to keep the university going."

Bruininks said that he thought Pawlenty made a "sincere gesture" to fund several university projects but that too much was cut.

In addition to fighting for funding for projects cut by Pawlenty -- a list that includes a new Bell Museum of Natural History for the U -- the two higher education systems will look for more money for building repairs.

MnSCU sought $110 million and the U asked for $100 million for building repairs. Pawlenty's initial proposal called for each to receive $40 million.

"There are leaky roofs, aging heating and ventilation and complying with safety codes and Americans with Disabilities codes," said Linda Kohl, associate vice chancellor for public affairs for MnSCU. "If you wait on these, things get worse and projects get more expensive ... but one of the problems is that you don't have a ribbon-cutting on a new roof."

While different than roads and bridges, higher education also fits under the category of "infrastructure," according to Bruininks.

"If the state wants to remain vibrant in a global economy it needs a great, vibrant transportation system, it needs an educational system that works, it needs a research university that can create the discoveries that are going to lead to the creation of new jobs in Minnesota's economy," he said. "I'm just very hopeful that the policymakers will get together, compose their differences and come up with solutions that will really move us forward."

In the meantime, both U of M and MnSCU leaders said they are going to simply try to explain to legislators just how important higher education funding is.

Jeff Shelman • 612-673-7478

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