U’s legislative

Coralie Carlson

It doesn’t take a mathematician to figure out that a new president plus a retiring governor multiplied by a state surplus in an election year equals a lot of cash for the University.
The school raked in a record $206.8 million package for building projects on campus and $36 million for personnel, classroom improvements and new equipment.
The University’s success in the 1998 legislative session unfolded in a dynamic political landscape. While newcomer Mark Yudof sought to establish a precedent for his reign as University president, Gov. Arne Carlson wanted to leave a legacy as his final term draws to a close.
At the same time, the state’s pocketbook overflowed with a $1.9 billion surplus. That left lawmakers — including 144 House members up for re-election in November — with a tough challenge: Send the surplus back to taxpayers or put it into public works projects.
A majority of legislators chose the latter, contributing to the University’s legislative spoils.
“The combination of all of them was a pretty potent force,” said Richard Pfutzenreuter, vice president for the Office of Budget and Finance. “It’s a package and I can’t emphasize enough how that package worked in our favor.”
Yudof’s entrance on the political stage might be the most visible influence from the school’s vantage point. But the surplus was a considerable help, too.
“He came at a lucky time when there was money around,” said Charles Backstrom, professor emeritus of political science. “In another year, even he wouldn’t have gotten blood out of a turnip.”
A thriving economy with low unemployment and two consecutive years of surpluses helped lawmakers loosen their grip on bonding cash.
Pfutzenreuter, a former fiscal staff director for the House, said the economic condition entered into the picture back in August when Yudof originally drafted his request. The University’s need for repairs wouldn’t budge, but officials hoped lawmakers would be more willing to part with the cash in a strong economy.
“The place is very different over there depending what the bank account is like,” Backstrom said, referring to the state Capitol.
The day after the session closed, a state agency economic report revealed a rise in unemployment last month from 2.6 to 2.9 percent. Although this small change doesn’t indicate a failing economy, a long-term rise in unemployment does.
“If it goes up four, five, six months in a row, then that is an indicator that the economy is deteriorating,” said Jay Mousa, a research director for the Minnesota Department of Economic Security.
That could be a hurdle the University might face in the future.
For now, officials are relishing in this year’s success and looking back on what they did right.
Yudof’s fresh face played an integral role in rallying lawmakers and University groups to climb on board, officials said.
One example of the president’s rapport with lawmakers came when Yudof downplayed potentially harmful and negative testimony by a feedlot opponent alleging a conflict of interest by a University hog researcher.
“When the president finally went down to the table to talk, I just saw the members of the committee relax, pay attention,” Pfutzenreuter said.
“His ability to do that meant a lot about how the Legislature, and I think how the public, is responding to the University.”
Rather than prioritizing the projects in the University’s request, Yudof declared every initiative a top priority, successfully unifying the lobbying efforts of the school’s coalitions.
There was more unanimity between campuses, colleges and departments rooting for the full $249 million request instead of just their piece of the pie.
University students and faculty contacted their representatives, who seemed more eager to please in an election year.
But the ranking issue could pop up in future legislative sessions. Many House members disapproved of the omission of priorities.
“I mean, we took a pretty hard beating on that,” Pfutzenreuter. “Next time, if we don’t prioritize, they’ll be pretty irate.”
Perhaps the University’s biggest asset was the endorsement from Gov. Carlson last October. The often-obstinate governor stood by the University until the session closed.
“The governor doesn’t really have anything to say in the University’s operation … but he wants to,” Backstrom explained.
Carlson, an ardent Gopher sports fan, went to bat for the University in drafting the final plan to fund almost all of the school’s building projects.
In his last year, Carlson was trying to leave a legacy in higher education and the University’s bonus budget might do the trick.
“You’re remembered by how you go out of office,” said political science professor Virginia Gray.
This isn’t the first time a University president earned kudos and dollars for success in his initial legislative session while the presiding governor prepared for an exit from office.
In 1989, Gov. Rudy Perpich signed a higher education bill giving the University $1.9 billion — a 14 percent increase from the previous year. He proclaimed the day “Nils Hasselmo Day” in appreciation for the new University president.
Yudof said he’ll use this year’s lessons to shape future legislative strategies.
“We really know what our priorities are next time out of the shoot,” Yudof told the Board of Regents last Thursday.
But next year Yudof’s honeymoon will be over and he’ll have to contend with a new governor and undetermined economic status. The stars might not align for a repeat of this session’s overwhelming victory.