Budget request efforts stepped up for ’98

Heather Fors

University officials hope phone calls, mass mailings and informational gatherings will persuade influential business leaders, union officials and, most importantly, lawmakers to back its massive budget requests during the upcoming legislative session.
The lobby effort, which officials say is the most coordinated in recent memory, is also the most strategic in the school’s history. Everyone from alumni to top administrators to Board of Regents members have been stumping around the state to drum up much-needed support for the $290.5 million the University wants for building and technology upgrades.
And so far efforts have paid off.
When the University submits its 1998 capital budget request to the state Legislature on Jan. 20 it will have the support of an unlikely friend.
For the first time in history the Minnesota AFL-CIO gave the University its endorsement Dec. 5. Union officials said the unanimous decision was based on a new-found recognition of the University’s importance to the state.
“(We are supporting the University) based on the fact that we believe it is good for the state of Minnesota,” said William Peterson, secretary treasurer of the Minnesota AFL-CIO and University Board of Regents at-large representative.
Bill Brady, University Relations news service director, said the union’s endorsement combined with Gov. Arne Carlson’s support will have a large impact on the Legislature’s vote. Carlson has made higher education his top focus during his last year in office.
“(Endorsements) influence the Legislature, and that’s where the rubber meets the road,” Brady said.
He added that the University will have factions from each political party on its side because of Carlson and the union’s support.
Part of the reason the request has gotten a rosy reception thus far is that school officials got a head start in their lobby campaign. By introducing the capital request early in the fall, University planners were well-prepared to give state officials the information they needed.
“In the past it’s been reactive. When problems occur during the sessions, then we respond,” said Regent Michael O’Keefe. “What characterizes this is that we’ve taken the lead.”
It’s something lawmakers have taken notice of, which has increased importance because of the large amount of groups vying for a limited pie.
Rep. Erik Paulsen, R-Eden Prairie, said the University is ahead of its counterpart, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system, in getting information to the capitol.
“I know a lot of (information) has been sent over and nothing has been done with MnSCU yet. It seems like a concerted effort on the part of the University,” he said.
Carlson announced last month that he wants MnSCU to get at least $209 million for new facilities and programs. MnSCU is comprised of 36 community colleges, technical and state universities.
Rep. John Tuma, R-Northfield, said though he has noticed more aggressive activity on the part of the University than in past sessions, it might not be necessary. “I don’t think it’s a competition question this year,” he said. This is mainly because of Carlson’s desire to fund education, Tuma added.
Still, University administrators aren’t taking any chances. The AFL-CIO, for instance, didn’t give their thumbs-up to the budget request without some coaxing from school officials.
Over the past few months University President Mark Yudof — along with various University administrators, friends and alumni — has been knocking on the doors of various local organizations, asking for support of the request.
The AFL-CIO was just one of a number of groups and individuals University officials targeted.
“In the last legislative session we had support, but we had not gone out inviting groups to endorse us,” said Tom Swain, vice president of Institutional Relations. He said it is not an uncommon practice to get requests from other groups.
“It helps at the Legislature when there’s a broad-based support,” said Richard Pfutzenreuter, University associate vice president for budget and finance.
University officials are not sitting on the support they have already garnered. The University’s request of $290.5 million as a first installment during the 1998 session is the largest in the school’s history, with most of the money slated for building renovations and technology upgrades on all four campuses.
In the past the University has fallen short because its proposals were sometimes vague. This time, officials have detailed where each penny of the request would go.
In a foldout brochure they’ve prepared, administrators included estimates for renovations and building proposals, with the largest expense being the construction of a molecular and cellular biology building price tagged at $70 million.
“It’s a sales pitch that’s the best I’ve ever seen. It specifically tells what the numbers are supposed to do and what the outcome will be,” said Regent Bob Bergland.
Individually, regents are talking with their constituencies. Student lobbyists are also at the capitol on a daily basis.
Throughout the month of January, Frank Cerra, senior vice president for Health Sciences, is scheduled for a “road tour” of speaking events in Hibbing, the Phillips Neighborhood, Bemidji, Willmar, Mankato and St. Paul.
Yudof has been making similar trips since he first unveiled the budget request in September. He’s consulted with local Kiwanis clubs and newspaper editorial boards.
The University Alumni Association is also working on drumming up support for the proposal.
“We will certainly be asking our alumni legislative network to contact their legislators in support of the University legislative request,” said Les Heane, Alumni Association member. This includes having alumni write letters or call their lawmakers to urge them to get on board.
Unifying these constituencies is an achievement in itself and keeping a harmonized message is crucial, officials say. To keep people on the same page, planners are holding special meetings to discuss the content of the capital plan as well as lobbying strategies with everyone who will be involved with the effort.
Regent Tom Reagan recalls that in prior sessions, individuals have lobbied for University funding that outlined different interests than the school’s funding proposal. He said this division has contributed to the school losing funding.
“Divide and conquer has always been our downfall and it will not happen again this year,” Swain said.