Senate passes higher-ed bill with cloning amendment

The Minnesota Senate passed its omnibus higher education bill today, which would hit colleges and universities with double-digit budget cuts and tuition caps, and ban state and federal funds from being used in human cloning research.

The bill, which passed on a 37-27 vote, would cut state funding for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system by 10.3 percent, the University of Minnesota funding by 14.4 percent and the Office of Higher Ed administration by 10.3 percent hit.

The State Grant Program saw a 2.6 percent increase, but was not funded enough to meet demand over the next two years.

“We did preserve a lot for the students,” said higher-education chairwoman Michelle Fischbach (R-Paynesville). “We did put together a solid bill.”

Democrats, however, warned that the bill’s cuts would hurt the state.

“Disinvestment (in higher education) is going to jeopardize this state’s future economic prosperity,” said Minority Leader Tom Bakk (DFL-Cook). “Remember this day.”

Schools would also see cuts of another sort. The bill also calls for a tuition cap of 3 percent annually for two-year MnSCU colleges and 4 percent for MnSCU universities. Because the University of Minnesota’s charter gives it independence from the Legislature, the bill only states that the Legislature “expects” the U of M to keep to a 4 percent tuition cap for resident University of Minnesota undergraduates.

The bill also includes a controversial section that would ban the use of state and federal funds in research involving “human cloning.”

Democrats criticized the cloning language, saying it was vague. As written, it could cover not only reproductive cloning (the creation of fully formed human beings), but also therapeutic cloning, which uses tissue to find cures for diseases.

DFLers pressed Fischbach to be clearer about her intent, and suggested alternate language, but were rebuffed.

Sen. Ron Latz (DFL-St. Louis Park) said Republicans weren’t being honest in their description of what they wanted to ban, and suggested the vague wording was merely a front that pro-life activists were hiding behind.

“They’re trying to move the line from what’s considered human conception,” he said. “We ought to be having that debate, but on terms we understand  — and not hide behind scientific language.”

Although Fischbach didn’t say much about why the bill and its language were necessary, Sen. Michael Jungbauer (R-East Bethel) suggested the research in question was indeed a threat to life:

“At some point (at which) you can harvest something for use, those cells have certainly become a life. … And you have to end that life in order to harvest anything useable.”

Latz and other DFLers warned that a ban would have a “chilling effect” on medical research at the U, as well as a loss of jobs, scientists and research money.

Some other elements that the bill includes:

  • a requirement that MnSCU put any savings they gain through legislative salary curbs toward the lowering of tuition.
  • a new formulation for the State Grant Award program that would shift the burden of tuition not covered by the program from students onto their families;
  • a study of graduate education at for-profit institutions; and
  • a lowering from 66 to 62 the age at which people can attend college classes at reduced cost.