Menno Schukking, vice-president of the Northern State University Student Association, led off the Q&A at Saturday's Aberdeen crackerbarrel by asking legislators if they thought Senate Bill 181 was a good idea. SB 181 would appropriate $3.2 million to the Board of Regents and $736 thousand to the vo-tech schools to support a tuition freeze for the coming fiscal year. Schukking noted that SB 181 would be a good first step toward flipping the state support/student support ratio from the current 40/60 split to the 60/40 split it used to be.

None of the Republicans on the panel would bite. Both District 3 Novstrups, Senator David and Rep. Al, are sponsors of the bill but simpered about having to wait and see how the final budget came out. District Senator Brock Greenfield said the tuition freeze isn't a backburner item but then left it on the backburner by saying there are lots of interests to balance. Only District 1's Democratic Senator Jason Frerichs took a stab at setting priorities, suggesting that if the Governor can make a priority of spending $4 million on self-insuring state properties, we ought to be able to set a similar priority now on higher education.

Schukking is in Pierre with student leaders from campuses across the state today for the Student Federation Higher Education Days. They face a tough push on the tuition freeze, since the Governor opposes it and the Regents won't fight for it. Schukking and his young colleagues will try to get legislators to commit to the funding priorities in SB 181 and three other bills:

  • Senate Bill 91, which seeks to boost the undercapitalized needs-based scholarship created in 2013. Schukking tells me that the scholarship fund, from which Regents can only take interest, only has enough principal to generate $5,000 in interest for needs-based scholarships at Northern. SB 91 originally proposed a $200K boost; Senate Appropriations amended out that funding Friday to allow the bill to move through debate while we await budget data and legislators willing to actually set a priority.
  • Senate Bill 92 would do the same for the Critical Teaching Needs Scholarship. The commitophobic Senate Appropriations did the same thing to it Friday, knocking the appropriation from $200K to $1.
  • House Bill 1147 is Governor Dennis Daugaard's proposal to boost the merit-based Opportunity Scholarship. The Governor is willing to spend $1.274 million to cut costs for our best students by not quite three percentage points.

Not on the Student Federation's happy list is House Bill 1206, whose sponsor list is almost entirely mutually exclusive of the sponsor list of SB 181. Almost none of HB 1206's sponsors are willing to sign on to a tuition freeze as a priority for higher education, but they will sign HB 1206 to make carrying concealed weapons on campus a priority, because (a) it sounds tough, and (b) it doesn't cost the state any money... well, at least not until we have to start spackling bullet holes and hauling away bodies.

The Student Federation opposes HB 1206. Evidently they believe students are better served by a discussion of real investment in the very real problems of college affordability and student debt instead of the fantasies of every student as his or her own John Wayne or Jason Statham. Let's hope they can spend Higher Education Days talking more about green than guns.