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Tempers flare before House passes higher ed bill

Rep. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, attempted to mandate that schools make emergency contraception available students who had been sexually assaulted, but the proposal was challenged on procedural grounds by Republicans. (File photo: Bill Klotz)

Rep. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, attempted to mandate that schools make emergency contraception available students who had been sexually assaulted, but the proposal was challenged on procedural grounds by Republicans. (File photo: Bill Klotz)

The emotional battle that erupted over a higher education funding package in the House either spells one party’s disinterest in protecting women’s health, or the other’s undying commitment to scoring political points. In any case, the higher education omnibus bill became yet another case study in the poisonous style of debate that now seems a given in the House, where each new omnibus bill lends itself to questioning over one party’s priorities or seriousness in getting a bill passed.

The results of Monday’s debate over the House higher education funding bill was never in much doubt. The bill passed 72-55, though the one Democrat who voted in its favor, Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, said he did not support it. Pelowski, the minority lead on the House Higher Education Policy and Finance Committee, was likely employing the common tactic of voting for a bill in the hopes of landing a minority caucus position on the conference committee.

The bill, authored by Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, would deliver a targeted boost to the state’s secondary institutions. Schools in the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU) system are due a $105 million increase over base-level funding, an amount that would freeze student tuition in 2016 and actually decrease tuition costs by 1 percent the following year. Nornes arrived at the MnSCU increase despite a committee budget target of only $53 million, incorporating some $53 million of unspent balance from the state grant program.

Nornes also funded state grants to the tune of $150 million per year, about $25 million less than the Senate and Gov. Mark Dayton are seeking, but still $10 million more than the projected need for that program. Nornes explained on the House floor that fully funding the grant program was “very important,” as those funds “go to the student, and not the campus.”

The University of Minnesota would receive no new funding for a tuition freeze under the House budget, a point not lost on the lower chamber’s Democrats, though the bill has a $1.5 million appropriation for agriculture education on the university’s Crookston campus, and another $1.4 million for renovations at its Morris location.

The Senate bill, which passed off the floor the previous week, contains $60 million for tuition relief at the U of M, and $59 million for MnSCU. For both school systems, 5 percent of that funding is contingent on the successful reallocation of administrative spending to direct teaching expenses; the University of Minnesota is required to redirect $22 million by 2017, and MnSCU must find $15 million in surplus administrative spending.

Both the House and Senate bills also contain a comprehensive policy governing how state institutions, public and private, respond to allegations of sexual assault. The measure, offered by Rep. Marion O’Neill, R-Maple Lake, in the House, is generally popular on both sides of the aisle, but a proposed amendment to slightly alter its language led to an extensive floor fight.

At issue was a proposal from Rep. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, to add the prescription that colleges must provide “care” to students who report they have been sexually assaulted. Murphy then attempted to mandate that schools make emergency contraception available, but was challenged on procedural grounds by Republicans, who said the amendment would cost money, thus pushing the bill over its budget target.

The battle soon took a heated nature, as Democrats accused the majority of trying to avoid a definitive vote on giving contraception to rape victims. At one point, Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, attempted to ask House Majority Leader Joyce Peppin a question, but Peppin declined to yield, a rare occurrence on the House floor.

Murphy fumed at the stifling of her amendment, saying, “I can’t believe you would do this to young women, young women on college campuses, who’ve been raped.”

Rep. Sarah Anderson, R-Apple Valley, who had argued that the amendment would add money to the bill’s bottom line, also said it was unnecessary, as hospitals treating sexual assault victims are already required to provide contraception.

After the birth-control language was stricken, Murphy’s underlying amendment, calling only for the providing of “care,” was passed overwhelmingly. Democrats said this should have required the bill be sent back to the House Ways and Means Committee, saying that it, too, would come with an added cost. But Rep. Jim Knoblach, R-St. Cloud, chair of that committee, disagreed, and said the term was “fairly undefined,” and would not necessarily add expenses for colleges.

“It could be as simple as referring someone to a hospital,” Knoblach said.

Other, less controversial pieces of the bill include a piece that provides tuition loan forgiveness of up to $1,000 per year for graduates who go into teaching, and pilot programs that would change student teaching programs from the current 12-week duration to a yearlong program.

The Senate acted on Tuesday to not concur with the House file, and requested a conference committee of five members each. Three Republicans voted in favor of the bill authored by Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, and would therefore be eligible to serve on the committee.

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