What Republicans didn't like about commissioner's letter

After the state legislative conference committee on higher education adopted into the final bill the items that were similar or identical in the House and Senate bills, the committee listened to testimony by Sheila Wright, the state commissioner of higher education.

Several seemed to take issue with the tone of Wright’s letters — both yesterday’s and one she’d sent April 29. (A copy is in the window above.)

Wright gave the usual pleas: Don’t cut so deeply, and don’t micromanage the institutions by establishing tuition caps and tying funding to performance goals.

Her speech used language similar to what was in her letter:

“(Cutting the budget) of both MnSCU and the University of Minnesota while imposing limits on tuition increases will most assuredly limit their flexibility at the time we need them to be as flexible as possible. … Limitations and performance goals undermine their ability to respond creatively.”

She added later:

“You’re holding (trustees and regents) accountable for performance at the same time you’re tying their hands.”

But Sen. Michele Fischbach (R-Paynesville), head of the Senate’s section of the committee, focused on the last section of the letter (above) that Wright had sent them:

I remain optimistic that, with your leadership, the conference committee will be able to reach a single legislative budget plan that will move closer to a more balanced perspective — one that reflects our need to invest in postsecondary education for continued improvement of the workforce, while simultaneously protecting access to students. We can then begin negotiations.

Fischbach told Wright she was “taken aback” by that part:

“That means you can negotiate (for) the governor?”

The two went back and forth — longer than was necessary, it seemed — before it was explained that yes, Wright was part of Gov. Mark Dayton’s team, but no, she did not negotiate directly for him.

Fischbach continued:

“So these bills are not good enough for you to negotiate? …  I want to know what your alternative is. You give us a lot of negative feedback, but nothing constructive.”

Wright hemmed and hawed a bit, and essentially repeated Dayton’s desire to see one complete Republican bill before negotiating elements.

(Why she didn’t mention elements of the higher education bill that Dayton has already proposed, I’m not sure.)

Bud Nornes (R-Fergus Falls), the chairman of the House section, chimed in:

“Has the governor given you something to bring forward?

Fischbach continued:

“So these (points in the letter) are not necessarily the governor’s positions? .. This is not the opinion of the governor?”

Wright just answered:

“It is signed by me.”

Fischbach later said:

“It would  make more sense for your office and for you as a leader to offer suggestions — and not just send letters.”

Nornes and Rep. Bob Dettmer (R-Forest Lake) said they didn’t think the consequences of budget cuts will be as dramatic as Wright made has them out to be.

Sen. John Carlson (R-Bemidji) said top U of M administrators who are making “hundreds of thousands of dollars” are “smart people” :

“It’s now time for them to start exercising some of those problem-solving abilities. Maybe we don’t have to lose hundreds and hundreds of faculty.”

Sen. David Senjem (R-Rochester) helped wrap up the session by saying Democrats so far have been too intransigent to negotiate with:

“I don’t remember (in years past) any standoffish attitude that I’m perceiving today.”

Note: Quotations are from my notes and are not verbatim.