University may change the way it lobbies for state funding

Figures from other states show that higher education funding tends to fall with a Republican legislature.

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Kevin Beckman

With control of both chambers of the Minnesota Legislature shifting to Republicans, the University of Minnesota may have to change the way it lobbies the state for funds.

Legislators have expressed mixed views about the University’s prospects for state lobbying next session. Republicans say they will give the University adequate attention, but DFLers have expressed pessimism that Republican lawmakers will prioritize higher education.

And at many other Big Ten schools with Republican-controlled legislatures in recent years, state funding has been cut.

“If I were the University of Minnesota, considering what happened to its budget in a Republican-controlled House, considering … what happened to the higher [education] budget the last time the Republicans controlled both houses, I think I’d buckle up,” said Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona and member of the House higher education committee. “The last time this happened, it wasn’t good for higher ed.”

Pelowski said resources are tight, and the University will have to prove to the Legislature that it’s worth the investment.

“There will be resources, but they’re not going to be anything like they were,” he said.

J.D. Burton, interim head of the University’s Government and Community Relations department, said that this session, the University will emphasize the school’s role in each legislator’s home district.

“It’s our job to try and explain what role the University has for their local communities,” Burton said. “That isn’t necessarily something that is a change, but it’s certainly something we’ll be putting a lot of focus on.”

University President Eric Kaler told the Minnesota Daily last month that he has had conversations with Republican leaders in both the House and Senate since the election.

“We will continue to have those discussions and continue to talk about the importance of the University of Minnesota,” he said.

Burton said the school has been in contact with the chairs of both chambers’ higher education committees and has met formally and informally with legislators since the election.

“We’ve reached out … and offered our assistance and our willingness to help in any way that we can,” he said. “But certainly once the session starts we’ll be spreading out and introducing ourselves to the new legislators.”

In addition to new legislators, the University will be working closely with alumni in both chambers to lobby for the school, Burton said.

Besides a more than $1.2 billion base request for the biennium, the University will ask the state for $147.2 million over the 2018-19 biennium for six projects and initiatives and $245.1 million in 2017 to finance seven infrastructure projects.

“We’ll be making our case for the needs that we’re asking for and the ways that we’ll help students,” Burton said. “There are members of both parties that feel strongly that the University should be successful and should continue in the role in the state that it’s always had.”

But the University may be fighting an uphill battle because state funding to higher education has declined for many Big Ten schools with conservative legislatures in recent years.

Rutgers University saw a drop of about $70 million in state appropriations between 2006 and 2013.

Purdue University experienced about a $40 million drop in state funding between 2008 and 2012.

State appropriations as a percentage of revenue at Michigan’s 15 public universities fell from 48 percent in 2000 to just over 20 percent in 2014.

And at the University of Wisconsin, the percentage of school revenue from the state has been cut in half from 1998 to 2016.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker approved a plan in July 2015 to slash state funding to the University of Wisconsin by $250 million between 2015 and 2017.

Funding per student at that system has dropped almost $4,000 since the early ‘00s.

Still, despite other states in similar legislative situations cutting state funding, Burton said he’s confident the University can convince the state to provide enough funding.

“I’ve always believed that higher education and the University’s role is a bipartisan issue,” he said.