Unique coalition promotes U funding

The Legislative Network coordinates alumni, students and faculty to urge lawmakers to finance University projects.

Stephanie Kudrle

When the University faced drastic budget cuts in 1992, its Legislative Network members helped restore $32 million in vetoed funding by contacting legislators.

The network, a lobbying group formed through the University’s Alumni Association, includes about 10,000 alumni, students, faculty and volunteers statewide committed to lobbying for the University.

This year, following the University’s request for $155 million for capital bonding projects, Gov. Tim Pawlenty suggested $76.6 million. Once again, the University is looking to its Legislative Network for help.

Mike Dean, grass-roots coordinator for the Alumni Association, said the University is one of a handful of schools in the nation with this type of program.

“We are the biggest, and we’ve always been on the cutting edge of technology,” Dean said. “We were one of first groups to take lobbying to the next level.”

He said alumni, students, faculty and University supporters need to work together to get the Legislature to listen to their requests.

“We teach people how they can make a difference at the Capitol,” Dean said.

The network encourages members to write e-mails, send letters or call their representatives in the Legislature to ask for more University funding.

Dean said response from legislators about this year’s capital request has been positive.

“Both Democrats and Republicans are calling us and saying they too were disappointed with the governor’s proposal,” Dean said.

Margaret Carlson, executive director of the Alumni Association, said the Legislative Network began when the association was formed 100 years ago, but the formal group was established in the 1980s.

Margaret Carlson said it was important the University use its large alumni base – about 70 percent of University graduates live in Minnesota – to bring issues before the Legislature.

The network has had its share of successes.

In 1998, the Legislative Network mobilized to support the University’s request for $249 million in state funding for building projects. Although the House suggested providing $114.7 million, and the Senate proposed $172 million, the final budget included $200 million for University capital bonding projects.

Legislative contact

University lobbyist Donna Peterson said grass-roots organizations such as the University’s network have become important in lobbying the Legislature.

“We want people to know what’s in the request and why it costs so much,” Peterson said. “Legislators listen to their constituents, and it’s important for the University to have a voice even though we’re not located in anyone’s district.”

She said the Legislative Network has been influential in past University requests but changes in funding depend on how supportive legislators are.

Rep. Lyndon Carlson, DFL-Crystal, said the University has done an excellent job motivating support groups for its causes.

He said when the network starts lobbying, supporters seem willing to contact him.

Lyndon Carlson serves on the Higher Education Finance Committee and Ways and Means Committee in the House. Both committees impact the University’s budget.

“I’ve had a very positive experience with the network,” he said. “When constituents call, it’s great because it means the general public is interested in these issues.”

He said he expects to get letters from constituents about the University’s bonding request.

But Rep. Carla Nelson, R-Rochester, said the network’s lobbying efforts are not effective because they are not realistic.

“They’re requesting full bonding, and that historically never happens,” Nelson said. “The letters could have been more effective had they been based in the reality of the situation.”

But Nelson agreed that hearing from constituents is important to legislators and helps them make decisions.

Other networks

Two other Big Ten universities, the University of Wisconsin and University of Indiana, have similar networks, Dean said.

But he said the University’s is the only group in the nation with enough Web technology to provide members easy access and keep them updated on events.

“Grass-roots efforts like this don’t exist in other parts of the country,” Dean said. “It’s not just the Alumni Association here – (the network does) outreach to others like students and faculty.”

Ann Beaujean, state relations director for Michigan State University, said her school also has a group, composed only of alumni, that calls legislators on behalf of the college.

Beaujean said although it is a smaller, more informal network than the University of Minnesota’s, people are always willing to support Michigan State’s requests.

She said sometimes grass-roots efforts are sometimes necessary to make the Legislature listen, but one person speaking on behalf of the school could make a difference as well.

University spokeswoman Amy Phenix said that because each university has a different lobbying structure, it is difficult to know how many schools have a legislative network.

Backing the U

Students, alumni and faculty are encouraged to join the Legislative Network, Dean said.

“If we want a larger impact,” he said, “we need a larger group.”

Danielle Stuard, a student on the University’s Morris campus, traveled to the Twin Cities for the network’s legislative briefing Thursday. She said she got involved to try to unify the voice between students and alumni.

She said the network is helpful because it reminds members to send a letter or e-mail to legislators.

“I’ve had constituent meetings set up,” Stuard said. “And I’ve had very good success calling representatives.”

Mary Bartz, vice president for the National Board of the Alumni Association, said she felt it was vital to be aware of the University’s relations with the state.

“The network really motivated me to contact my legislator,” Bartz said. “Legislators know they will be up for re-election so they really need to pay attention to their constituents.”

Dean hopes to educate and engage the community in legislative activities in the future.

“It’s important for the legislators to hear why the University is important,” Dean said. “Otherwise, we will get lost.”

– Anna Weggel contributed to this report.