According to Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, here's what happened recently in the MN State Legislature:
Committee Work Begins
This week’s legislative action in the Senate primarily took place in committees, where members reviewed high level summaries that will inform their discussions as each committee prepares to make decisions about various appropriations in their respective budget area. With the state facing another billion dollar deficit, it is clear even in the most early budget discussions that we will need to take a balanced approach--including reforms to both sides of the spending and revenue equation--to resolve our budget problems.
Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee Update
Our first meeting was held this past Tuesday, and it was very informative. Our first order of business was to consider the confirmation of Larry Pogemiller as the Director for the Office of Higher Education. We heard from Director Pogemiller and the committee voted unanimously to approve his appointment and send it on to the floor, where he will be considered by the entire Senate body.
Our second order of business was to hear a presentation by University of Minnesota President, Eric Kaler. As I referenced in my last update, I have been in close contact with the president since the session began. The presentation he gave was an overview of the University’s mission, accomplishments, and overall benefit to the state of Minnesota. The work being done across all campuses is truly inspiring. However, as Chair, it is also my responsibility to lead in the area of financial oversight. In our question and answer period that followed the President’s presentation, members were given the opportunity to address concerns they may have had regarding the recent Wall Street Journal article on rising administrative costs. I was particularly interested in the University cost structure, specifically, what is the real cost per degree conferred? How are our State dollars being used and what is the ROI for these dollars?
Of course these are complex questions but asking them provides a foundation to begin a meaningful dialogue. In addition, as I have previously discussed, we have asked for a thorough analysis to be done of the University’s cost structure and have insisted this analysis be done by an outside entity. Yet this week we also had a chance to get a more thorough understanding of many of these issues from the University’s CFO, Richard “Fitz” Pfutzenreuter, in our second committee hearing on Thursday.
In this informational hearing, “Fitz” and the Director of Financial Research, Lincoln Kallsen presented the University cost structure based on an analysis requested by President Kaler upon his arrival to the University. Surprisingly, the University had not done anything like this before. The presentation was eye-opening in that it gave us a detailed look at many parts of the cost-structure within the University. Members, myself included, were surprised to hear that funds provided by the state disproportionally go towards the research aspect of the University. While just a start, we appreciated the chance to begin understanding our financial and mission relationship.
Other Committee Information
Aside from my role as the chair of Higher Education/Workforce Development, I also sit on three other committees: Finance, E-12 Division, and Jobs, Agriculture, and Rural Development. Each of these committees also were informational in their first hearing.
Our Finance committee met with the committee on Taxes to hear Minnesota Management and Budget Commissioner Jim Showalter and Revenue Commissioner Myron Frans, along with State Economist Tom Stinson to discuss the projected state budget.
In the E-12 Division, we heard from Dr. Tom Melcher of MDE who presented the findings from a working group that was dedicated to reforming the way our schools are funded. Their proposal centered around moving the funding stream away from the reliance on property taxes and towards a State Gen Ed levy. While I understand certain arguments for this method, I am concerned about unintended consequences. We, in our community currently rely more heavily on revenue from property taxes. This has been a stable source for us and changing this carries some risk in my opinion. This is an issue that I will pay close attention to moving forward. You can count on me to fight for the best interests of our community while also keeping in mind the greater good. So far, I am not convinced this new proposal meets that need.
The Jobs, Agriculture, and Rural Development committee was taken on a field trip to tour the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s facilities. I had never taken a tour of these facilities before; it was quite eye-opening. Most notable was the information presented regarding Emerald Ash Borer Disease. The committee members saw a tree that had been infected with the disease and were warned that if we do not attend to this issue, it has the potential to destroy our nation’s Ash trees.
Last week I mentioned a future meeting with Commissioner Rothman regarding the Hollydale project. Our meeting did occur. I am pleased at he and his staff’s commitment to follow this issue closely and they now have a clear understanding of how strongly we in our community feel about this issue.
We will not be meeting this Monday in honor of MLK day. My husband and I will be observing this day in a poignant and meaningful way; we will join my son and daughter who live in Washington DC and attend the Presidential Inauguration.