Despite $133,000 in fees, little student lobbying

Libby George

The University is facing its third straight year of tuition hikes, and the fate of numerous programs hinges on the Legislature’s activities.

But students did not necessarily get the lobbying they paid for.

Last year, $133,000 in fees were allocated to the Student Legislative Coalition – which is supposed to organize all lobbying activities for students – but the majority of that money went to shutting down the organization.

“There were a lot of us who realized that (SLC) wasn’t effective in the current situation, so we rolled it back into (the Minnesota Student Association),” said Andy Pomroy, MSA Legislative Affairs Committee chairman.

He added that the fees SLC received were spent to buy out the executive director’s contract and the SLC office lease, and also to bring in a professional who specialized in shutting down nonprofit organizations.

The lobbying responsibility then fell to the Legislative Affairs Committee – with a budget of $300.

Lacking presence

While MSA struggles to redefine its role, its presence at the Legislature has been restricted mostly to Lobby Day, which brought nearly 500 students to the State Capitol.

“I think it’s been difficult and everyone has been trying to fill their roles, but from what I’ve seen it’s been great,” said Nicole Bennett, who is in charge of legislative networking at the Alumni Association.

Not everyone, however, thinks MSA’s actions are productive.

“When the SLC was in an office by the State Capitol, they were a lot more active,” said Frank Viggiano, executive director of the Minnesota State Universities Student Association.

He added that while MSA had a “very effective Lobby Day,” its daily presence is lacking.

“In order to be a presence, you have to be there every day,” Viggiano said, adding that Minnesota State Colleges and Universities students testified before four committees last week alone.

Pomroy said he had appeared before approximately four committees all session – which Viggiano said was to be expected.

“You can either be a student or a lobbyist, but you can’t be both,” he said. “The students that are involved have done a good job with what they have done Ö but they can’t carry out the job of a professional.”

Structural debate

While the Legislative Affairs Committee will likely receive more money this year – approximately $20,000 – newly elected MSA President Eric Dyer said there would be no professional help.

“There will be no lobbyists, and no professional lobbyists,” Dyer said. “We’ll have advisers, but it should be a student-run operation.”

Pomroy agreed with Dyer and said the committee will spend the majority of its budget on consulting fees to such groups as Grassroots Solutions and Progressive Minnesota, which provide students with training to be lobbyists.

Pomroy said he thinks the Legislative Affairs Committee’s lobbying activities were effective this year.

“I honestly think if we hadn’t been down at the Capitol, they would have just rubber-stamped what the governor proposed,” Pomroy said.

He pointed to the House budget proposal – which allocated $50 million more to higher education than the governor’s plan – as proof of that effectiveness.

Staying aware

While Viggiano agreed that having students get face-to-face contact with legislators was important, he said having professional help also ensures positions are taken on important legislation.

“You have to monitor almost daily because bills are being introduced every day,” Viggiano said, adding MSUSA takes a position on anywhere from 20 to 50 bills each session.

Pomroy said the Legislative Affairs Committee had taken a position on approximately five bills.

“My guess is that we try to limit the actual amount of bills we support or don’t support,” Pomroy said, adding it would “bog down MSA” to take a position on many more.

The bills, on which MSA took positions, Pomroy said, included those that would require legislative approval for student fees and one that would add two student representatives to the Regent Candidate Advisory Council, but did not include many bills relating to changes in the Higher Education Services Office.

Overall, Viggiano said, he hoped to see more University student action.

“It would be enormously helpful to all of us if there was an active, daily University of Minnesota student presence here,” Viggiano said.