Rohloff begins as the U’s public face at the Capitol

Rohloff will work to garner financial support as state aid to the University declines.

Special assistant to the president for government relations Jason Rohloff began Jan 9. Rohloff will play a crucial role in lobbying for support for the University in the legislative session which begins today.

Anthony Kwan

Special assistant to the president for government relations Jason Rohloff began Jan 9. Rohloff will play a crucial role in lobbying for support for the University in the legislative session which begins today.

Dina Elrashidy

As the legislative session begins Tuesday, Jason Rohloff has little time to get acquainted with his new role as the University of Minnesota’s face to the Legislature, businesses and other external partners.

In his role as the special assistant to the president for government relations, Rohloff will play a crucial role in lobbying support for the University in the state Legislature to increase the University’s dwindling financial support.

He said his position is really a “storyteller for the University of Minnesota.”

“[Rohloff] represents the University in the public eye,” said Richard Pfutzenreuter, the University’s chief financial officer.

Pfutzenreuter co-chaired the committee that chose Rohloff at the end of November to replace Donna Peterson, who had worked as a lobbyist for the University since 1990.

“His intellect, thoroughness, and the really positive feedback that we got from people when we interviewed him” made Rohloff stand out among other candidates, Pfutzenreuter said.

“Knows his way around”

After graduating from the University of Minnesota with an international relations major and a French minor in 1994, Rohloff got his first taste of public policy work as an intern for former Gov. Arne Carlson.

Rohloff’s job experience ranges from being the liaison between the federal government and former Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s office to doing national advocacy for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – his most recent work.

In November 1998, Rohloff began working for the state House of Representatives and became the administrator of the House Tax Committee in a time when “we had billions of dollars of surplus, which was quite fun,” he said.

But Rohloff recognizes that he will be working in a more difficult financial environment in the upcoming legislative session.

After being away from the Legislature for eight and a half years, many faces in the House and Senate have changed and the state is under financial strain, Rohloff said.

Last week, Gov. Mark Dayton revealed a $775 million bonding bill proposal for the 2012 legislative session that would allocate $78 million in funds for construction projects at the University – less than half of the school’s request.

Part of Rohloff’s job will be to gather more support in the Legislature to increase those funds, particularly for Higher Education Asset Preservation and Replacement money, which is used to make repairs and improvements around campus. Dayton’s current plan would give the University $20 million for HEAPR, $70 million short of the University’s request.

Rohloff said he hopes to make his argument by showingthe return investment the University will garner.

The task will not be easy. For a while, the University can expect only marginal changes in legislative support because of the state’s current economy, he said.

There is more pressure on higher education funding because it is “one of the few discretionary budget levers that are available to policy makers,” Rohloff said.

But Rohloff said his current priority is forging relationships with those in the Legislature.

“He knows his way around over here,” said Rep. Bud Nornes, chairman of the House Higher Education Committee. The University’s government relations staff members “definitely stay close to what we do and keep an eye on us.”

An eye on business partnerships

Outside of the Legislature, Rohloff – like University President Eric Kaler – hopes to increase partnerships with the business community. He said he will work with partners like the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the Minnesota Business Partnership.

Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, who has worked with Rohloff in the past, said he believes the transition from Peterson to Rohloff will be seamless.

Weaver said companies are sometimes intimidated by the University, but with an increased effort on both sides, he believes the connections will continue to improve. He pointed to the University’s past research collaborations with companies like Medtronic and 3M as examples of successful partnerships.

“He’s very smart and able to work with both sides of the aisle,” Weaver said.

Currently, Rohloff is still getting acquainted with his new position by trying to better understand the University. His job, which officially began Jan. 9, has been filled with meeting faculty, deans and staff as well as external partners of the University, Rohloff said.

Rohloff, who began his career after a successful search through job posts in Nicholson Hall, is excited for the “opportunity to repay the University that has given me so much,” he said.