Route to regency might be shortened

by Coralie Carlson

For 25 years, many have complained of the political potholes that line the road to membership on the Board of Regents. Legislators seem primed this year to smooth out the bumps with a streamlined selection process.
The Senate Higher Education Budget Division approved a plan Friday to eliminate congressional districts while maintaining statewide representation on the board. A similar measure passed through House committees last week.
Under current guidelines, the Legislature selects one regent from each congressional district and four at large, reserving one position for a student.
Contentions with the geographical restrictions resurfaced last year when top-notch candidates in the Seventh Congressional District squared off. Lawmakers had to choose between Robert Bergland and Herbert Chilstrom, but said both should have won seats instead of just Bergland.
The draft approved Friday scraps congressional district designations. Instead, five regents would be required to reside in the seven-county metro area, five from greater Minnesota and two at large, including the student seat. Officials said they hope this will widen the candidate pool for each seat.
“I’m not sure if you’re fixing the problem or making it worse,” said Sen. Sam Solon, DFL-Duluth. People did not complain about where regents came from, they complained about the long campaigning procedure, he added.
Regent selection has been a source of contention ever since Minnesota converted to a partisan Legislature in 1973, said Sen. Cal Larson, R-Fergus Falls.
Several attempts have been made since then to rid the selection process of party influences.
In 1976, legislators designated a student regent position. At that time, regent candidates were chosen during caucuses by lawmakers from their specific congressional districts and then voted on by the full House and Senate.
In 1989, the Regent Candidate Advisory Council was created to recruit candidates, making district caucuses the middle step.
Now, the procedure begins when a 24-member citizen’s council solicits and screens Minnesotans to fill empty regent slots. The Senate wants to reduce this panel to 18 members; the House to 15.
The House and Senate also disagree on how many council members the governor and the political heads of both chambers should select.
Humphrey Doermann, chairman of the Regent Candidate Advisory Council, said he worried the suggested changes would further, not reduce, political influence.
“Will they care about the total balance of the group or their party?” Dorgan asked. A more partisan advisory council could result in greater political influence in the overall process.
After the advisory council recruits candidates, the regent hopefuls lobby legislators from their district for endorsement. This often turns into a long, partisan-driven and expensive process for potential regents.
Chilstrom, a former Lutheran bishop, spent more than $1,000 on his unsuccessful campaign last spring.
Sen. Steve Kelley, DFL-Hopkins, said as long as the Legislature selects regents by congressional districts, candidates will go through lobbying. “This change moves in the direction of shortening the process,” he said.
If the changes are approved, the advisory council’s deadlines would be moved up, clearing the way for an earlier House and Senate vote. Also, the district caucus step would be eliminated.