Big year awaits U at Capitol

Bryce Haugen

University officials aren’t waiting until the state Legislature reconvenes to make their case to politicians.

“We’ve been doing it since the (last) session ended ” literally,” said Todd Iverson, one of the University’s lobbyists.

The University hopes to secure more than $206 million in bonds this legislative session, which begins March 1, to fund a variety of construction projects throughout the state. And as the price of an on-campus Gophers football stadium increases with inflation, officials and grassroots supporters are asking the Legislature to tackle the issue again this session, after gridlock sidelined the bill in July.

Every statewide officeholder except Republican U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman faces the voters in November. That pressure ” combined with the increased voter turnout among college-age citizens ” should bode well for higher education, said University political science professor Larry Jacobs.

“I think the University can expect more resources,” he said.

Bonding bill

The University’s 2006 capital request asks for $80 million to repair aging facilities on four campuses, including a facelift for Folwell Hall’s exterior and a renovation of Pillsbury Hall. If approved, the state would pay for those entire projects, but the University would foot the bill for one-third of its other priorities, such as expanding the business schools on the Duluth and Twin Cities campuses.

Officials also are asking for money to replace the still-unfinished Science Classroom Building with a $62 million Science Teaching and Student Services Center and for a new biosciences research building along East River Parkway.

Members of the House and Senate committees who will consider the University’s bonding bill request plan to visit the Twin Cities campus within the next month to take a closer look at the proposed projects.

Sen. Keith Langseth, DFL-Glyndon, who heads the Senate Capital Investment Committee, said the most important part of the bonding bill is higher education. He said members of his caucus will support his version of the bill, which he predicts will be more favorable to higher education than the Minnesota House and Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s proposals.

Langseth and Rep. Dan Dorman, R-Albert Lea, the House Capital Investment Committee chairman, said ironing out the details of the bill will be tricky, but they want to get a bill to the governor’s desk by April 15.

“The longer we stay (in session), the greater the likelihood is for nothing good to happen,” said Dorman, a University alumnus.

He said passing the bill would be complicated by the tough ” and quite political ” process of prioritizing projects.

“For every dollar we say “yes’ to, we’re going to have to say “no’ to two others,” he said.

On Friday in Duluth, Pawlenty announced his support for a new $23 million Labovitz School of Business and Economics. He will announce the rest of his bonding bill recommendations today at a news conference.

University Chief Financial Officer Richard Pfutzenreuter said he expects Pawlenty to support the business school and Science Classroom Building requests, but said he thinks the governor might deem the new biosciences building too ambitious for now.

Though historically lower than the University’s request, Pawlenty’s proposal “will be a good starting point,” Pfutzenreuter said.

On-campus stadium

An on-campus Gophers football stadium bill will continue to weave its way through the Capitol and supporters said they are confident it will pass this time around.

The Metrodome is not a long-term solution, and the longer legislators go without approving a new home, the more expensive that home will become, said University Athletics Director Joel Maturi.

“It’s not doing anybody any good delaying it any longer,” he said.

DFL state Sen. Larry Pogemiller, who represents the University’s Minneapolis campus, said the bill can’t pass in its current form. He and most of his colleagues support the idea of the stadium, he said, but many don’t want to fund it with the proposed $50 per semester fee on students, which Pogemiller called a “tuition increase.”

“I don’t believe the increase in tuition is either a good idea or one that makes it easier to pass the bill in the legislature,” he said.

State Sen. Geoff Michel, R-Edina, the bill’s co-author, predicted the bill’s final passage, perhaps with a few changes. University officials agreed with that evaluation.

Supplemental funding

The University is also asking for $14.4 million in additional operating money to pay for heating costs on all campuses and to update equipment at the state’s only veterinary and dental schools.

State Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, said he hasn’t seen the University’s request, but would consider all requests after the state’s February budget forecast.

“We’ll have to know where we are financially before we start spending any extra money,” said Nornes, who heads the House Higher Education Finance Committee.