U lobbyists wait for an ending

State lawmakers are finalizing a budget agreement behind closed doors.

Megan Nicolai

The University of Minnesota often had to fight for its interests during a legislative session marked by a budget struggle that ended in May, but the schoolâÄôs front line of lobbyists managed to keep a low profile.

âÄúWe like to stay out of the limelight,âÄù said Donna Peterson, assistant vice president for the Office of University Relations and director of the Office of Government Relations .

When the legislative session ended without a budget deal, the government relations staff was suddenly cut off from any discussion of the budget bills concerning the University. Many of the meetings concerned with building the framework for the stateâÄôs budget âÄî and thus the UniversityâÄôs âÄî are taking place behind closed doors.

Peterson, a University alumna and a former DFL legislator of both the state House and Senate, said that not knowing the status of the budget has been stressful.

âÄúItâÄôs very frustrating, because you donâÄôt know when the conclusion is coming,âÄù she said.

The University employs three people to argue on its behalf at the state Legislature and to promote its interests on issues ranging from general state funding to capital funding and research. The Office of Government and Community Relations  works with officials from state, city and federal governments, along with communities neighboring the UniversityâÄôs Twin Cities campuses.

Peterson and her staff are now focused on answering questions from legislators and Gov. Mark Dayton  about the University, hoping that the governor will call a special session soon.

âÄúItâÄôs about keeping those lines of communication open so that we can answer any questions and provide any information they may need as theyâÄôre working through their final negotiations,âÄù said Todd Iverson, a lobbyist and assistant director at the Office of Government Relations. Iverson and his fellow lobbyists recently took calls from DaytonâÄôs staff, he said.

During the normal legislative session, answering questions from legislators and their staff takes up a big part of office operations, Peterson said. Lawmakers ask many questions about the University, like the number of international students or reasons behind tuition hikes.

Iverson said lobbying on behalf of the University took more effort this year due to the high number of freshmen lawmakers. The Senate saw 24 people serving their first term; the House saw 35.

âÄúThatâÄôs our stock and trade; the relationships we build over the years, and when you have to re-establish those relationships, it makes the job more difficult,âÄù Iverson said.

While attempting to influence legislators for the University during the last session, the three University lobbyists attended committee meetings and public hearings, constantly making an effort to talk to legislators with special interests in areas concerning the University, Peterson said.

Stem cell and renewable energy research, health clinics  and agriculture programs all faced funding cuts in several budget bills discussed at the Capitol, and lobbyists spoke on behalf of the University in many of those discussions.

Iverson said that many of those discussions ended with victories for the UniversityâÄôs state funding, including a $5 million allocation for renewable energy research that was under some scrutiny by the state Legislature.

Peterson, Iverson and Marty McDonough , another University lobbyist, work for the school trying to convince state officials to maintain funding and the flow of capital to the University.

âÄúI think itâÄôs getting harder and harder for higher education, because now weâÄôre competing with K-12 education, weâÄôre competing with the health and human services bill, weâÄôre competing with prisons, weâÄôre competing with many things on the budget,âÄù Peterson said.

Peterson said she spent a great deal of time this session working on a request aimed at paying for many of the buildings around the University campuses.