Students lobby through new program

In its first year, the Legislative Certificate Program lobbies on behalf of students at the Capitol.

Students practicing lobbying at the Capitol for the Legislative Certificate Program.

Ashley Goetz

Students practicing lobbying at the Capitol for the Legislative Certificate Program.

Their maroon blazers stand out in the dimly lit corridors of the State Capitol in St. Paul, and the group of University of Minnesota students sporting them is trying to stand out as well. This session is the first time the students, members of the Legislative Certificate Program, have represented the UniversityâÄôs undergraduate student population at the Legislature. Spanning programs across the University, the group of 10 students have testified before committees, met with legislators and spoken on behalf of students since the session began in January. Minnesota Student Association President Mark Nagel devised the idea for the program last year. He said the goal is to give University students a voice at the Capitol, alongside lobbyists from the school and other higher education groups. Each group member has the goal of testifying before a legislative committee at least once, as well as meet with at least three state representatives and two state senators this session, he said. Two dozen people applied to be a member of the program, which began training for the session in late January. Co-founders Jordan Bronston and Nagel said they want to see the program begin training for the 2010 session by this fall so they can play a larger lobbying role in the future. With a multi-billion-dollar deficit facing the state this session and Gov. Tim Pawlenty âÄôs proposed cut of $151 million to the University over the next two years, members of the certificate program said now is the right time to speak up at the Capitol. âÄúSupport the U Day [last Wednesday] was kind of like the All-Star Game,âÄù Bronston said. âÄúNow weâÄôre working into the second part of the season. ItâÄôs going to get a little more heated.âÄù Though the group is meant to speak on behalf of the students, not the administration, Nagel said there is some overlap in the messages to the Legislature this session âÄî appropriate as much money as you can to the University. âÄúWeâÄôre expressing the views of the students, not the University,âÄù Nagel said. âÄúFor the most part, [the messages] are similar. ItâÄôs a little different because the focus is on students and student interests.âÄù The group got input from everyone from University President Bob Bruininks to Regent Dean Johnson, a former state senate majority leader , before going to the Capitol this year. âÄúI was trying to give them the handbook of, âÄògo to St. Paul, donâÄôt be afraid, tell your story and go back to your dormitory and study,âÄôâÄù Johnson said. âÄúEngage them in a conversation about the importance of higher education as a long-term investment for the state.âÄù Program member Alex Tenenbaum said participating now at the Capitol shows lawmakers that students, âÄúactively are going to pursue the money weâÄôre asking.âÄù Tenenbaum said by being visible at the Capitol the students are making the case for more funding. The program gives students a voice that otherwise is missing, member Emily Mitchell said. âÄúThe University has lobbyists, the administration and stuff to get their voices heard, but the students never really do,âÄù she said. Donna Peterson , associate vice president for government relations, said having students at the Capitol brings a more personal touch than the three people who actively lobby on behalf of the University can. âÄúItâÄôs one thing to tell a legislator a story,âÄù she said. âÄúItâÄôs another thing to have the students there in person.âÄù But lobbyists still play an important role, Johnson said. âÄúI think you need the professional person, which is ongoing day-to-day, but you do need to see the face of who this impacts,âÄù he said. âÄúTeacher association lobby is great, faculty member is good, the actual student is best.âÄù But thatâÄôs the long-term goal of the program, Bronston said: a group of students as a fixture of the legislative process. âÄúThis is designed to be a constant, continuous kind of thing,âÄù he said. âÄúThere hasnâÄôt been an opportunity thatâÄôs actually getting people down there ever in recent history.âÄù -Devin Henry is a senior staff reporter