Our View: Pressure is on Kaler to explain U of M spending
President Eric Kaler faces a skeptical Minnesota Legislature after a front-page Wall Street Journal story called the University of Minnesota a case study in "administrative bloat."
The timing of the report, which was followed by a critical Washington Post commentary, couldn't have come at a worse time. Emphasizing its role as an economic engine for Minnesota, the university is requesting $1.18 billion for the next biennium, an 8 percent increase from the state's last budget.
Kaler called the reports "remarkably deceptive," contending "the articles did not report that, despite stunning state disinvestment, the university is more productive than at any time in recent history."
It's true the state sharply cut funding for the university since 2008. Its nearly $1.2 billion request this session is roughly the equivalent of what it received in 2000 and 2001.
But between 2001 and 2011, the Journal reported, the university added 1,000 administrators. Meanwhile, tuition and fees for in-state students more than doubled to $13,524 a year, about $5,000 more than the average at four-year public colleges.
Kaler said the Journal report overreported the number of administrative hires — that at least 300 of the 1,000 are actually professors. Kaler also said about 9 percent of the university's spending goes toward administrative payroll, which he said is in line with other public schools. However, the Journal story said the average administrative payroll was 8 percent at other Big Ten schools.
Legislators are taking the Journal report seriously and want an explanation. Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk and Senate Higher Education Committee Chairwoman Terri Bonoff sent a letter to Kaler asking for an analysis of the university's administrative costs by March 15.
"We're eager to do that," Kaler said last week. "We'll have a good story to tell at that point in time."
He better, or the Legislature will do what it deems necessary to control spending at the U of M.
Nutrition education takes a hit
The deal to resolve the federal fiscal cliff will have implications on the poorest of Americans.
The University of Minnesota Extension expects to lose $2.6 million of its $9.7 million grant to run the state nutrition education program. To avert the fiscal cliff, Congress took $110 million from the nutritional education component of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, and used it to keep the dairy industry's price support system from expiring.
Congress did not cut food stamp benefits, only targeting the program that extension educators use to teach low-income families how to stretch their budgets with healthy food choices. The program also helps children make healthy diet decisions to serve them the rest of their lives.
So, the funding cut will have long-term effects.
"We know the research shows that kids that eat well, parents that eat well, do better at work, they do better at school," said Bev Durgan, dean of University of Minnesota Extension. "It cuts down on health-care costs. So this program really is about helping people make better decisions."
Plan B for stadium funding?
Anyone who expressed doubts last spring about whether electronic pull-tabs would produce $348 million for the state's share of a new Vikings stadium should be forgiven for feeling rather smug right now because the early numbers are downright scary.
Projections last spring were that, overall, spending on charitable gaming in Minnesota would rise from its current level of $1 billion per year to $2.3 billion once the new games were up and running. Stadium backers predicted 2,500 bars and restaurants eventually would offer electronic pulltabs.
But today, just 120 businesses are offering electronic pull-tabs, and revenue is coming in at roughly half of what had been projected. Unless there's an explosion of new businesses that are willing to pay the $800 start-up costs, the state is likely to fall further behind in pull-tab revenue.
The good news is the state hasn't borrowed the money to pay for the stadium yet, so there's time to figure out new funding sources, which could include higher taxes on game tickets and luxury suites.
The bad news is that, in a budget year, this is the last thing our Legislature needed to have dumped onto its plate.