UMN legislative preview: bonding, reform and renters’ rights

Lawmakers and University of Minnesota students outlined policy priorities before the upcoming session in February.

Students from the University of Minnesota campuses including the Twin Cities, Crookston and Morris gather on the steps for a rally at the Minnesota State Capitol on Wednesday, April 3 as a part of Support the U Day.

Tony Saunders

Students from the University of Minnesota campuses including the Twin Cities, Crookston and Morris gather on the steps for a rally at the Minnesota State Capitol on Wednesday, April 3 as a part of Support the U Day.

Mohamed Ibrahim

A number of University stakeholders will advocate for their interests when the legislative session begins in February.

Ahead of the upcoming session, state legislators and University of Minnesota students hope to pursue new policy priorities and continue work from last session, including policies on housing and sexual assault reporting. Some lawmakers are also looking to introduce reforms to improve the legislative process.

University funding requests

This session will take place during a bonding year. The University is asking for $317.2 million in infrastructure funding in the state’s bonding bill. The request, which includes projects from all over the University system, was approved by the Board of Regents at a meeting earlier this fall. Last year, despite not being a bonding year, the University requested many of the same infrastructure items laid out in this year’s request. That request went unfulfilled. 

Last session, members of the House higher education committee released a proposed budget that exceeded the University’s $87 million two-year request by $27 million in an effort to freeze tuition. The University was eventually allocated $43.5 million in the budget. 

Rep. Connie Bernardy, DFL-New Brighton, chair of the House higher education committee, said that while the next attempt at a tuition freeze will not be until the next budget year in 2021, the committee will focus on other policies. This includes protections for students from for-profit colleges and affirmative consent standards in campus sexual misconduct codes.

“It’s something that I hope to be able to work on in the future,” Bernardy said. “Anything we can do to help in a non-budget year, we will definitely look into it, and we are all about the students.”

Reforming the legislative process

A House legislative process reform subcommittee met last month to discuss ways to avoid last-minute policy and budget decisions resulting in special sessions. The proposed reforms include committee deadlines well before the end of the session and discouraging policy provisions in fiscal bills.

Rep. Gene Pelowski, Jr., DFL-Winona, said special sessions condense six months of work into a few days, resulting in much smaller bills. Universities and colleges statewide go unfunded due to lawmakers running out of time, leading to increases in tuition and cuts to faculty and programs, he said.

“… You’re seeing increases in tuition, which also means increases in student debt,” he said. “When you see these bills not being funded properly, those are the results.”

Last session’s health and human services bill was originally 1,200 pages long, the largest in the Legislature’s history, preventing policy from merging with budget bills would make legislation more comprehensible, said Pelowski, the subcommittee’s chair.

“Usually we dump in way too much policy, and it’s not going to end up in the final bill anyway,” Pelowski said. “It would be better to put in no policy, handle the policy by itself and then have the fiscal bills just be fiscal bills.”

The subcommittee will vote on a number of reform proposals next week before heading to both chambers for approval.

MSA policy priorities

Following a bill passed last session to protect students from predatory landlords, the Minnesota Student Association is now looking to pursue further leasing legislation catered to students.

While still in its early stages, the potential legislation would adjusting rent for leases less than 12 months. MSA is also aiming to prevent landlords from pressuring students into re-signing leases early through legislation, said Sam Parmekar, MSA’s government and legislative affairs state coordinator.

“It’s pretty unreasonable to expect somebody to make a decision on whether or not they’re going to sign another 12 months lease based off of one or two months of living in that unit,” Parmekar said. “So we’re exploring options to looks at ways that would give students some more time.”

Additional priorities for MSA include the “safe transfer” bill, which would require a notation on a transferring student’s transcript if they are suspended or expelled for violating the University’s sexual misconduct policies.