Influential legislator appreciates

Coralie Carlson

Editors note: This story is the first of two profiles on the leaders of the higher education committees at the state Legislature. Tomorrow’s story will examine how Sen. LeRoy Stumpf, DFL-Thief River Falls, affects the Senate’s decisions.

Between her three children attending the University and her husband working as a professor at the Academic Health Center, Rep. Peggy Leppik, R-Golden Valley, knew all about the University before she became a powerful force in its budget process.
In the wake of the Republican take-over of the House last November, Leppik took over as chairwoman of the House higher education committee. Now she leads the 12-member committee to determine how much money the House wants to give the University.
In February, the University requested $1.2 billion from the state, the school’s largest single revenue source. University officials asked for $198 million more than they did two years ago to fund new programs.
Leppik said her family’s experiences helped her realize the pros and cons of the University. Her husband, Ilo, earned a multi-million dollar grant to study epilepsy in the elderly; her youngest daughter felt lost in the large lecture classes.
But Leppik herself is no stranger to higher education. She grew up in the college town of Berkeley, Calif., and earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology at the all-female Smith College in Massachusetts. She entertained the idea of a medical career and pursued graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania, but decided the field wasn’t for her.
Yet she still holds a deep concern for the funding of medical education. Much to the chagrin of the Republican leaders in the House, Leppik is the chief author of a bill to create a $230 million medical education endowment at the University out of tobacco settlement funds. If approved, the endowments will provide $39 million in revenue for the Academic Health Center annually.
While the governor and the Democrat-controlled Senate support the idea of investing tobacco settlement money in research endowments, Republican House leaders oppose the idea. They want to return the money to Minnesotans in tax breaks, saying the endowments would be new spending.
But Leppik said she doesn’t pander to partisan feuds.
“I sometimes go my own way,” she said.
Speaker of the House Steve Sviggum, R-Kenyon, said he thinks it’s wonderful that Leppik is carrying the endowment bill because he welcomes differences of opinion. But he also said he didn’t agree with spending the money in an endowment investment.
Sviggum said the possibility for negotiation on endowments is open, but it will take “permanent and significant tax cuts” to sway him.
Leppik said she expects to introduce the endowment bill on the House floor this week.
And despite her husband’s involvement in the Academic Health Center, Ilo Leppik said he doesn’t pressure his wife to support University funding.
“I don’t lobby her in any sense of the word,” he said. But in the next breath he explained, “There’s no question that there’s a major (financial) crisis at the Academic Health Center and around the country.”
Ten years ago, Ilo moved his clinical practice from the University to the private sector. He said changes in the state’s insurance program caused changes in school’s organization that made the practice unprofitable and didn’t leave enough time for his research.
At that time, Ilo stopped earning a salary through the University, but he maintains involvement with the neurology and pharmacological departments. He said he spends about 30 percent of his week at the University, doing research and teaching students.
But the reasons Ilo moved to the private practice are precisely the reasons University officials give as evidence of the need for state funding for the Academic Heath Center. So, lobbied or not, Leppik understood the crisis of the Academic Health Center firsthand — long before Dr. Frank Cerra, vice president of the Academic Health Center, testified before her committee with slide shows and glossy-covered brochures.
However, Leppik said representatives outside the higher education committee could be harder to convince. Many still see the stigma of the high-profile case of mismanaged funds in the Medical School under Dr. John Najarian. She said University officials have to convince legislators that financial shortfalls at the health center are not due to poor management.
Even with her endowment bill, the state can’t solve the problems of funding medical education by itself, she said.
“I don’t think that health plans or the federal government are off the hook, they all need to do their part to support it,” she said.