Lobbying forges link between U leaders and state lawmakers

by Dan Haugen

Each year the University receives millions of dollars in subsidies from the State Legislature. However, no funding is guaranteed, and ensuring that the school is adequately funded involves year-round, behind-the-scenes communication.

Much of that work is orchestrated by University Associate Vice President for University Relations and chief lobbyist Donna Peterson.

Peterson is a link between Morrill Hall and Minnesota lawmakers. She is a voice, along with a set of eyes and ears, for the University at the State Capitol.

Having spent the past 22 years working at the capitol – the first 10 as a legislator for her south Minneapolis district and the past dozen as a University lobbyist – Peterson is a familiar face to many at the Capitol.

The University’s lobbying effort was centralized in the mid-1990s. Previously, colleges and departments used their own lobbyists. Now, Peterson is one of three lobbyists who represent the University at the State Capitol. A fourth lobbyist works exclusively in Washington on federal issues.

As the 2003-04 legislative session begins, here is a look at a week in the life of a University lobbyist.

Jan. 13: Meeting with legislators

peterson began this week meeting one-on-one with state legislators. Collectively, Peterson and two fellow University lobbyists will try to meet with all 201 legislators each year. That is not always possible, so priority is given to newly elected lawmakers and those sitting on key committees, such as higher education.

This day Peterson had three meetings scheduled, the first of which was with third term Sen. Leo Foley, DFL-Coon Rapids.

“This is a bad year for trying to ask for anything,” Foley said as he looked over a list of building projects vetoed from the state bonding bill last year by then-Gov. Jesse Ventura. The University is asking the Legislature to approve funding for those projects – including the Translational Research Facility and a renovation of Jones Hall – this session. “I think the only hope is bonding,” Foley said.

In the brief meeting, Peterson answered the senator’s questions about research funding and faculty salaries and left him a list of “10 Things You Need to Know About the University.”

“That’s a sign of a good lobbyist,” Foley said. “She doesn’t take too much of my time, but she always keeps me informed.”

From Foley’s office, she was on to another meeting, this one with freshman Sen. David Gaither, R-Plymouth.

En route to his office, Peterson stopped to chat with a Minnesota State Colleges and Universities lobbyist about the latest rumors regarding the budget cuts Gov. Tim Pawlenty was expected to announce the following day.

The University and MnSCU typically cooperate at the Capitol when at all possible, Peterson said, although once dollars are committed to higher education, the two systems will compete for a portion of the money. Each typically receives approximately equal shares of the state’s appropriation.

Once at the office of Sen. Gaither, Peterson introduced herself and gave him some basic information about the University’s significance and its needs.

“The University is near and dear to me,” said Gaither, a University alumnus. “I just wish we never would have torn down Memorial Stadium.”

Peterson will keep tabs on which issues are important to which legislators and who might be more sympathetic to certain issues. When Gaither mentioned his son is in high school and will be looking at colleges soon, Peterson offered to help line up a campus tour for him. She also mentioned that she could help connect Gaither with University faculty if he’s working on a bill and needs somebody with a certain expertise.

Those types of favors are the only kind Peterson has to offer. Unlike many organizations lobbying at the State Capitol, the University has no political action committee and does not make campaign contributions. Employees are, however, free to donate their money as they wish.

“Whether we like it or not, that’s how it works,” Peterson said. “It’s a different kind of lobbying.”

Wyman Spano, co-author of “Minnesota Politics and Government” and an editor of the newsletter “Politics in Minnesota,” said the lack of political action committee money doesn’t put Peterson or the University at any significant disadvantage.

“The reality is that legislators are going to see the lobbyist from the University,” Spano said. What’s more important than campaign money is the school’s ability to mobilize large numbers of people, such as its alumni, he said.

Jan. 14: Reacting to cuts

peterson weaved out of a crowded press conference moments after Pawlenty announced his proposal for permanently cutting $50 million from the current higher education budget. Once in the hallway, she drew out her cell phone and dials Sandra Gardebring, vice president for University Relations.

“It’s a very positive statement,” Peterson told Gardebring, citing Pawlenty’s comment that because of “good management,” he believes the University can absorb the cut without raising tuition or cutting services this year.

Information that Peterson relays to Gardebring was passed along to others in the University Relations department and used to help prepare responses for reporters’ questions.

With the size of the budget cut known, more strategizing will take place.

“I’m just trying to protect things,” Peterson said. Largest of those things is the University’s annual $600 million portion of the state’s total operating budget. In October, the University unveiled a request for a $96 million increase in its operating budget for fiscal year 2004-05. Peterson said the University won’t officially scale that request back, but she and others won’t be pushing it.

Barring any surprises, state budget reductions will mean that for the first time in nearly a decade, the University will begin the next fiscal year with fewer state dollars than the previous year.

Though other years have brought budget increases, the percentage of the state’s budget going toward higher education has been on a steady decline for several years. A recent Pell Institute study found Minnesota’s appropriations for higher education per $1,000 of personal income fell approximately 43 percent between fiscal years 1977-78 and 2002-03, down from $15.08 to $8.62.

Spano, also a lobbyist, said Peterson and other higher education lobbyists in the state can’t be blamed for the shift.

“She’s had the bad luck of being at our capitol while we shifted considerably the way we think about higher education funding,” he said.

Jan. 15: A challenging session

peterson and other University officials met with members of the Minnesota High Tech Association, an organization whose research interests make it a University ally.

“We want to make sure they know what’s happening (at the Capitol) and how it will impact the University, because they are very supportive of the University,” Peterson said. The association’s members, as well as its lobbyist, will then contact their legislators with the same messages the University is stressing.

Peterson will likely need all the help she can get this year. She said this session is one of the most challenging she can remember.

“We’re not experts in working under deficit conditions because it happens so rarely,” she said.

The state has been working with surpluses rather than deficits during most sessions Peterson has worked. In those instances, lobbying for the University is about persuading legislators to fund new bells and whistles to improve the school.

Instead, this session will be about minimizing cuts.

Jan. 16: Presenting to committees

the House and Senate higher education finance committees met for the first time since Pawlenty’s proposed cuts were announced.

University Provost Christine Maziar and Chief Financial Officer Richard Pfutzenreuter testified at both meetings. Maziar explained that the cuts will have implications for the entire University, and Pfutzenreuter fielded the more technical questions regarding the University’s budget.

Prior to their appearances, each was prepared by Peterson and others in University Relations.

“We like to prepare people who are going to be in front of a committee so that they know what the expectations are and what questions they might get. What are these people interested in? What are their concerns?” Peterson said.

Claudia Brewington, a lobbyist for the Metropolitan Inter-County Association who worked as an assistant to Peterson at the University in the early 1990s, said Peterson is an effective lobbyist because she knows the system both at the State Capitol and at the University.

“She knows the language on both sides, and she knows how to translate,” Brewington said.

Jan. 17: Strategizing at Morrill

peterson learned legislators’ interests and concerns by putting in hours at the Capitol. The best way to find out if the topic of the University comes up in a committee meeting is to be there.

This morning the University was not specifically on the agenda for the Senate Finance Committee meeting, but if it should come up, Peterson, Maziar and Pfutzenreuter stood by in the corridor prepared to clarify any points.

The week ended with review and strategy meetings in Morrill Hall. Peterson and others in University Relations discussed questions that came up during the week and what the key messages should be for the following week.

Part of the day’s discussion focused on how specific rhetoric should be regarding the state’s budget cuts and their effects on the University. If University officials are vague, it could make it tougher to rally support from friends and legislators.

But citing specific areas where cuts might have an impact could have set off a frenzy of feedback.

Maintaining trust

every session has its own personality,” Peterson said.

But whether it’s about budget cuts or bonding requests, Peterson said it’s crucial to make sure disagreements over policy do not become personal, because trust is always a major issue.

“We need to have a good relationship with elected officials,” she said. “We have to come back every year.”

Dan Haugen welcomes comments at [email protected]