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Winona lawmaker backs bill to cut 10 percent from higher ed administration

ST. PAUL — A Winona lawmaker faced tough questioning on Monday over legislation that would require the state's colleges and universities to cut their administrative budgets by 10 percent.

Sen. Jeremy Miller, R-Winona, is sponsoring a bill requiring the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities and the University of Minnesota to make the cuts. He told members of the Senate Higher Education Committee that when college campuses face deep cuts, it is important that administrative officers are also subject to tough cuts.

"My goal is to get to a number where we can downsize the central office and still not have a negative impact on our local campuses and our students," Miller said.

Democrats on the committee argued that Miller's bill is an attempt to micromanage the higher education budget process. Sen. Ron Latz, DFL-St. Louis Park, said that in the case of MnSCU, many of the two-year college campuses, like Hennepin Technical College, rely on the central office for legal assistance and building construction expertise.

"If they don't have someone in the central office that has that expertise, they are going to screw up the project or they are going to pay a consultant a whole lot more to learn about the facilities at Hennepin Tech and then figure out what to do," Latz said.

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The Senate Higher Education Committee ultimately agreed to table the bill and consider adding it to a larger higher education bill.

Laura King, MnSCU's chancellor of finance, testified against the bill. She said MnSCU has already cut the chancellor's office budget by 22 percent since 2009. There is also a plan to cut an additional $4 billion and 40 positions in the upcoming budget cycle. She said the chancellor and college presidents' salaries could not be cut under this bill since they are based on contracts. Nationwide, she said, MnSCU is in the bottom 5 percent when it comes to the amount of money spent on administration.

"We are by some measures dangerously lean on administration spending. Our total spending on administration is 2 percent of our budget," she said.

But Miller, an accountant by trade, said that he believes a 10 percent cut is entirely reasonable. He cited a 2010 report by the Office of the Legislative Auditor on MnSCU that found between fiscal years 2002 and 2009 that spending by the total system increased by 34 percent while spending on the system office rose by 52 percent. The report also found that the system office's staff increased from 318 in fiscal year 2002 to 417 in fiscal year 2009.

Sen. Kathy Sheran, DFL-Mankato, is a co-sponsor of Miller's bill and said the point is to make sure the college campuses have leverage as higher education boards grapple with making deep cuts.

She added, "They need to have a voice at the table that gives some strength to the campuses in that negotiation."

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