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University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler says on Friday, Jan. 11, 2013, that if the state provides nearly $43 million, the university can keep tuition from rising for two years. (Forum News Service photo by Don Davis)

Legislative notebook: U president says progress made in trimming administration

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ST. PAUL -- The University of Minnesota prepares to ask legislators to approve a $1.8 billion budget as some lawmakers question a Wall Street Journal story that showed the school has an excessive administration budget.

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University President Eric Kaler told reporters Friday that he agrees with legislators' concerns about a top-heavy budget, but said the national newspaper article was misleading in saying the university has the largest administrative payroll of any research university.

The fact is, Kaler said, more than 1,000 employees were on the list the Journal used to draw its conclusion. But, he added, a third on the list are professors and another third are not paid by university or tuition funds.

Even with what he termed the Journal inaccuracies, Kaler said he agrees with a pair of lawmakers who asked for a study on administrative staff levels.

"We're eager to do that," he said.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, and Senate Higher Education Chairwoman Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, met with Kaler earlier in the week and asked him to look into the situation.

"We ask that you enact both a short-term analysis ... as well as exploring the in-depth analysis that other Big Ten universities have conducted," the senators wrote to Kaler.

The president said he plans to deliver lawmakers a preliminary report by March 15.

The size of the administration was controversial when Kaler arrived in Minnesota 18 months ago and he said he already was looking into it, but changing such a large institution does not happen overnight.

"Much of what was talked about happened prior to my arrival," Kaler said.

Tuition freeze sought

Kaler is telling lawmakers if they give the university nearly $43 million extra that tuition can be kept at current levels two more years.

"Everywhere I go I hear that," he said about freezing tuition.

Kaler said a tuition freeze likely would encourage more applications. As it is, the university expects 40,300 applications for 5,400 student spots it has available.

"I don't think students should graduate from the University of Minnesota with $27,000 in debt," he said.

The tuition freeze request is the largest increase Kaler seeks in the university's nearly $1.2 billion two-year request to lawmakers.

The second biggest is $36 million for research in areas ranging from robotics and conservation to food safety and brain treatments.

The university also seeks $1.5 million to forgive education loans for health-care professionals who locate in underserved areas such as rural Minnesota.

While higher education has received larger cuts in recent years than many state programs, lawmakers and the governor face a $1.1 billion deficit as they write a two-year budget to begin July 1.

Franken to help

U.S. Sen. Al Franken promises to help Minnesota legislators working to revamp Minnesota health-care programs.

The Minnesota Democrat emerged Friday from a closed-door meeting with key state lawmakers and said it is important to save Minnesota's nation-leading health-care system.

While Franken and state legislators met, Minnesota's human services commissioner was in Washington, D.C., trying to get federal officials to release guidelines for the so-called Obamacare health reform in time that states can implement it.

"There has been a little frustration about getting regulations," Franken said.

The new federal health-care law requires the state to launch a mostly online health insurance sales marketplace by Oct. 31, and state officials say they need to have legislation in place by the end of March to meet that deadline. But state law-writers need to know federal rules before they can finish their work.

Franken said he is leaning on federal officials to push them to get the rules wrapped up.

State Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, said that federal officials are overwhelmed with work needed to implement Obamacare.

Huntley sponsors a bill to replace the MinnesotaCare state-subsidized health insurance program. It would replace MinnesotaCare and Medical Assistance, a program for the poor, with the federal government paying for most of the expenses of the new system.

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