Lobbyists push University’s proposal before session

Newly-elected committee chairs and a state budget surplus prediction could benefit the University next session, officials say.

Chief Government Relations Officer J.D. Burton, who lobbies the legislature for the University of Minnesota, shares his thoughts and strategies in Morrill Hall on Friday, Dec 7.

Jasmin Kemp

Chief Government Relations Officer J.D. Burton, who lobbies the legislature for the University of Minnesota, shares his thoughts and strategies in Morrill Hall on Friday, Dec 7.

by Isabella Murray

As the University of Minnesota prepares to make its case at the new Legislature, its lobbyists will emphasize a “modest” budget request.  

The newly-appointed higher education leadership, combined with a recently-announced state budget surplus prediction make University leaders optimistic about the school’s funding requests. Lobbyists and University officials have already met with newly elected committee chairs ahead of the upcoming session. 

“The highest priorities for us at the Capitol is to successfully secure the resources that are necessary to meet the [Board of Regent’s] request and maintain the excellence at the University of Minnesota,” said J.D. Burton, chief government relations officer for the University system. 

At the start of every biennium, the University’s Board of Regents advances an official budget request to the state. The request for the 2020-21 fiscal year is $87 million dollars, a “modest” proposal compared to previous asks, according to University officials. 

“What’s unique about the request this year is that it’s significantly smaller than it has been in the past,” Burton said. “It’s a reflection of how we understand higher education and competing resources that the state has to look at.”

University lobbyists need to demonstrate how funding will be allocated and how past appropriations have been spent. 

“I think we need to make our case to the Legislature in regards to performance,” Regent Steve Sviggum said. “We make good with the money they have given us. This money is warranted.”

When the University’s budget was allocated in 2017, the state provided $54.62 million of the University’s $147.2 million request. 

The University will also request $232.3 million in its 2019 capital request.

Newly appointed House higher education committee chair Rep. Connie Bernardy, DFL-New Brighton, has been in discussion with University lobbyists since her appointment to the committee. She said she is eager to help fund the University. 

“We need to be competitive and we need to be looking for our future, and help our economy be the best it can. We’ve had a great economy because of our investment in education and our workforce,” Bernardy said.

Bernardy, along with the new Senate higher education committee chair Sen. Paul Anderson, R-Plymouth, will be primary audience members for lobbyists, Burton said. 

“[Bernardy] is someone we’re really excited to work with, as is Sen. Paul Anderson in the Senate,” Burton said. “Both are University grads, both have a long history of support of the University, understanding where we’re coming from, and that’s where we’ll start.”

The Minnesota state government will face an estimated $1.5 billion surplus over the current two-year budget cycle, the Minnesota Management and Budget office announced Thursday.

The state’s Budget Reserve account now tops $2.075 billion, the highest in Minnesota history. 

“With that budget surplus, I think that our request at this time, which I thought was a very reasonable request and [is] certainly needed, I think should be well-taken by the Legislature,” Sviggum said.

While the budget forecast looks promising for the University and its requests, Burton said February’s forecast will provide a clearer picture of how the University’s request will fare. 

“This is a good sign, but we’ll know in February as to what will really be possible,” Burton said.