Thursday, April 19, 2007

Economic Development & Workforce Bill plus Higher Education Bill and State Government Finance: April 19, 2007

The House met in session at 9:30 a.m. this morning, recessed so that both party caucuses could get briefed on the bills to be debated, then came back about 11:00 a.m.

Omnibus Economic Development Workforce Policy & Finance Bill

This bill is SF2089. When a Senate version is passed first we insert the Senate file number (although the bill is not the Senate's language). This bill includes budget items for MN tourism, the MN Historical Society, arts groups, housing, bioscience initiatives, state boards, and so on. The vote was 92 to 39 and I voted for it.

Higher Education Policy & Finance Bill

This bill (SF1989) provides funding to the U of M, MnSCU, and so on. I supported the bill's passage, and it passed 95-37.

Highlights: The bill (as amended) would hold down tuition increases at MnSCU campuses to zero percent for the next two years. The original proposal was to limit the increase to two percent the first year and zero the second year of the next biennium.

The House minority leader, Rep. Marty Seifert, introduced an amendment (HDA-128) that moved $6 million (out of $40,170,550) from office of the MnSCU chancellor and administrative services and moves it into tuition in order to reduce the increase to zero percent next year and zero in the next year. It passed 97-35 and I voted for it. Usually, amendments by the opposition fail on mostly partisan lines but I thought this idea was well thought out. A senior Democrat, Rep. Gene Pelowski of Winona, also strongly supported the amendment on the floor. So the vote was bi-partisan.

The most controversial amendment on this dealt with the "dream act," which would allow undocumented Minnesota high school graduates to attend a state college or university at a resident tuition rate. Rep. Dan Severson (R-Sauk Rapids) offered the amendment (S1989A2) to delete this provision from the bill. I know that this is controversial but here is the text of the "dream act" starting on line 30.13 or section 7 of SF1989. I will follow with some analysis.

(a) A student shall qualify for a resident tuition rate or its equivalent at state universities and colleges, including the University of Minnesota, if the student meets all of the following requirements: (1) high school attendance within the state for three or more years; graduation from a state high school or attainment within the state of the equivalent of high school graduation; and (3) registration as an entering student at, or current enrollment in, a public institution of higher education.
(b) This section is in addition to any other statute, rule, or higher education institution regulation or policy providing eligibility for a resident tuition rate or its equivalent to a student.
(c) To qualify for resident tuition under this section an individual who is not a citizen or permanent resident of the United States must provide the college or university with an affidavit that the individual will file an application to become a permanent resident at the earliest opportunity the individual is eligible to do so.
EFFECTIVE DATE.This section is effective the day following final enactment and applies to tuition for school terms commencing on or after that date.

I hope that readers might take the time to view the debate on this amendment. In particular, I found the statements of Rep. Rukavina and Rep. Rod Hamilton (R-Mountain Lake) to be very compelling. Indeed, Rep. Hamilton says on the video that his great-grandfather was an illegal immigrant from Germany!

To view the video, click on and find the House floor session #3 for April 19, 2007. When the video comes up, you can fast forward to 2:18:25 and you'll get to see it. Rep. Severson talks for about 10 minutes at the beginning and it goes on for about 20 to 30 minutes. There was another amendment at 2:54:00 by Rep. Emmer (R-Delano) on this topic later that brought the comments from Rukavina (2:57) and Hamilton.

When I first heard of this idea several years ago to provide in-state tuition to people who are here illegally, I thought it sounded really unfair and I didn't like the idea at all. However, having talked and listened to experts tell us that our workforce is going to be woefully short of college graduates, having learned during the last few years that our immigration system is incredibly broken and complex, having learned that these students are not eligible for student loans or grants and therefore do not compete with other students for funds, having learned that our economy and political bodies send conflicting signals on immigration, having been lobbied by constituents from the ISAIAH group in favor of this issue, having learned that these students did not make the choice to be here illegally when they were minors, and having learned that 13 campuses in Minnesota offers such in-state tuition, I voted against the Severson amendment to strip out the "dream act" and it did not get adopted with a vote of 61-71.

I just read in a MN Chamber of Commerce newsletter ("Business Views") that this organization also supports the Dream Act. They write, "It is important to our economy to have an educated and trained workforce. Demographics are rapidly changing, and we anticipate a shortage of educated workers. Therefore, we need a greater percentage of students to pursue a postsecondary education. Supporting higher education for all students, including our immigrant populations, is in the best interest of our state’s economy."

There was also some hubbub about the recent Star Tribune column about Minneapolis Technical and Community College and its intent to fix up some bathrooms so Muslims can wash their feet before praying. I received a lot of e-mail about this. Rep. Abeler (R-Anoka) introduced and then withdrew an amendment that I would have voted for that would say, "Each college and university must permit employees to display cultural and spiritual symbols in space assigned to employees as their individual work areas. If a college or university provides common space to employees for cultural or spiritual practice or display, this space must be provided on an equal basis to all interested groups of employees." This amendment would have alleviated concerns by some that colleges and universities were applying a double standard between Christians and Muslims.

Omnibus State Government Finance Bill

This bill was HF953/SF1997 and we dealt with it fairly late in the evening. This bill includes funding for the legislature, the Governor and other constitutional offices, councils, and so on. After a while the Republicans just decided that they would ask for a full vote on the bill instead of trying to change specific provisions through amendments. The bill passed 68-64 and I voted for it, although I think that there is some room for improvement in the bill. The controversial provision in the bill includes domestic partner benefits for state employees and the option for local governments to do so as well. I will note that I have received significant positive feedback on this provision from constituents, and you'll see this on the blog in previous entries. Many major corporations in Minnesota offer these benefits in order to retain good employees.