U group takes student issues to Capitol

Minnesota Student Legislative Coalition will address intern protections during the session.

by Kevin Beckman

Although issues such as tax relief and a state bonding bill are expected to dominate the Minnesota Legislature’s short session, the Minnesota Student Legislative Coalition is preparing to lobby for student-focused issues at the State Capitol.
The group will push for student intern protections, an expansion of financial aid to graduate and professional student-parents and to increase discussion around college affordability. 
At the same time, some House of Representatives members introduced legislation focused on college affordability Monday
The group decided to prioritize intern protection because unpaid interns often don’t receive the same protections from harassment or discrimination that paid employees do, said Camden Anderson, MSLC’s government and legislative affairs coordinator for state advocacy.
“You’re in the same workplace. You’re doing work for the company, but you don’t get the same recourse processes,” he said. 
Anderson said Sen. Kari Dziedzic, DFL-Minneapolis, will carry MSLC’s intern protection proposal to the Senate this year.
The Coalition also plans to continue attempts to expand the Postsecondary Child Care Grant Program — which provides financial aid to undergraduate student-parents — to include graduate and professional students. 
“Lots of graduate and professional students are more likely to be at the age to have kids and to be in that situation,” Anderson said. “It’s needed for them to have the child care grant benefits.” 
MSLC is working with the Council of Graduate Students and the Professional Student Government to expand the program.
Last year … there wasn’t really a lot of push on it, I think,” said PSG President Kyle Kroll.  “We are taking it much more seriously this year, and we’re very actively engaging legislators to gather more sponsors.”
But Susan Warfield, director of the Student Parent Help Center at the University of Minnesota, said expanding the child care grant could be tricky, especially since the grant has reduced child care coverage for undergraduate students from five years to four years of eligibility. 
“I don’t know where the funding would come from to cover graduate students across the board,” she said. 
Warfield said expanding the program to include graduate students would put those students in competition with at-risk undergraduate parents.
“I know grad students need it, and they talk to us about that often,” she said. “If it’s an expansion of the pool so that everybody can be covered, that would be an absolutely amazing solution and good for everybody.” 
Anderson said MSLC hopes Dziedzic will sponsor a child care expansion bill in the Senate as well. 
College affordability is another issue that MSLC hopes to address this year. Anderson said the group will share student stories with the lawmakers throughout the session, particularly members of the Higher Education and Capital Investment committees. 
“We just think it’s very beneficial for students to tell their stories about … college affordability and how it impacts them,” Anderson said. 
Anderson said MSLC is also planning to speak to legislators about supporting the University’s capital requests for Gov. Dayton’s 2016 bonding bill. 
The University requested $236.3 million from Dayton for six priority projects. Dayton’s recommendation provides $153.3 million of that request.
Legislators introduce measures
As students look to push student affordability concerns at the Capitol, so are some legislators.
Rep. Melissa Hortman, DFL-Brooklyn Park, and Rep. Jon Applebaum, DFL-Minnetonka, announced that they will sponsor several bills that address higher education costs Monday
Included in the four proposed bills is a measure that would use a portion of the state’s projected $1.2 billion surplus to fund a tuition freeze at the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities. 
If passed, tuition would drop to the 2014 rate for University students. 
“In the short 2016 session, providing a tuition freeze and student debt relief should be at the top of our to-do list,” Applebaum said in a press release. 
Last year, lawmakers didn’t fully fund a University-requested tuition freeze. 
The other three bills would expand the state’s newly created student loan refinancing program, create a tax credit for students making student loan payments and increase state grant awards for some students. 
Raj Chaduvula contributed to this report.