Leg. shift could be good for the U

Experts say the University’s lobby will have to change its approach to take advantage of new sympathy at the capital.

by Tony

Last Tuesday, the Democratic-Farmer-Labor party gained control of the state government for the first time since 1990.

Politically, the situations are similar, but economically the state is worse off than it was 20 years ago, so the takeover’s implications for the University of Minnesota are uncertain.

Experts say the shift is a tremendous opportunity for more funding with the right approach, but University officials say nothing has changed for them.

“We will have a party in control that will be bringing in more revenue, and I think there is a general support for investing in education,” said Larry Jacobs, a University political science professor. “Whether the University is able to capitalize on the DFL majority is another question.”

State support to the University has varied over the years.

In 2007, when the DFL took control of the Legislature, funding for the University increased by about $200 million.

In 2011, when Republicans controlled the Legislature, the University received its lowest amount in 10 years.

University Chief Financial Officer Richard Pfutzenreuter said the University’s budget has less to do with which party is in power and more to do with the state’s economic health.

“We’ve had bipartisan support over the years,” he said. “I don’t think the University has done better or poorer depending upon who’s in charge at the Capitol.”

Jason Rohloff, the University’s lobbyist, said the changeover will have little effect on his legislative strategy.

“The needs and the concerns of students and families and industry in our state did not change from Tuesday to Wednesday,” he said. “So our legislative requests will remain the same.”

Rohloff said his approach has changed over time with economic decline. As belts tighten, all departments are subject to more scrutiny from legislators, he said, and the University has added more accountability measures to its budget proposals as a result.

David Schultz, a law professor at Hamline University, said the state budget will be a top priority, which could affect how the new single-party legislature will respond to the University’s budget requests.

“The University of Minnesota has to wait in line,” he said.

Schultz said the University lobby has rightly emphasized affordability for students in its appeals to the Legislature, but framing the University as a job creator may be more effective. This approach would put the University at the center of budget discussions and possibly garner support from Republicans, he said.

Experts have said the University must also respond to increased competition from the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system for higher education funds, although Rohloff said none exists.

Jacobs said MnSCU has received more money from the state in the past because the system has been more effective at delivering tangible results to constituents.

“The University is in a different ball game because we provide a general benefit to the entire state,” Jacobs said. “Basic research is not something you can often bring to a particular district.”

From her view on the House floor, Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, said the University is at a disadvantage because it’s represented by a few legislators in relatively secure seats that have gone uncontested in recent years, while MnSCU is spread across the state.

Schultz said the competition between the two education systems has hurt both sides.

“That competitive strategy has worked against both MnSCU and the University of Minnesota in terms of being played off of one another for a finite amount of dollars,” he said.

Schultz said he would like to see both systems work together to show the Legislature their respective roles in boosting the state’s economy.

“I think this is a historic moment for the University to not go on with business as usual,” Jacobs said, “but rather respond to the need to make a case that’s compelling for legislators.”