MSA voices concern about lobbying group involvement in regent selection process

Several sitting regents have contributed to the Maroon and Gold Rising Political Action Committee, which lobbies to elect certain candidates.

The Board of Regents convene for their October 2019 meeting at the McNamara Alumni Center on Thursday, Oct. 10.

Nur B. Adam

The Board of Regents convene for their October 2019 meeting at the McNamara Alumni Center on Thursday, Oct. 10.

by Ava Thompson

In a letter addressed to lawmakers on March 12, the Minnesota Student Association (MSA) denounced the Maroon and Gold Rising Political Action Committee (PAC), a group including former regents and legislators that lobbies the Minnesota State Legislature to elect certain candidates in the regent selection process.

Over the last month, lawmakers and students voiced their concerns about a potential conflict of interest in the regent selection process after student representatives discovered that four sitting regents have made contributions to the Maroon and Gold Rising PAC.

Regents David McMillan, Kendall Powell and Janie Mayeron and former Regent Richard Beeson have collectively contributed $8,500 to the Maroon and Gold Rising PAC, according to the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board. The four regents declined to comment for this story.

Former University of Minnesota president Eric Kaler also donated $10,000.

The MSA letter alleged that the Maroon and Gold Rising PAC uses its funds to advocate for a “specific slate of Regent candidates.”

“In so doing, it creates an ethical minefield by undermining the ability of the State Legislature to exercise independent decision-making in the Regents selection process,” the letter reads.

The letter asks all legislators and caucuses to return any money from the Maroon and Gold Rising PAC and refuse future contributions. Students also called on the Campaign Finance Board to investigate the Maroon and Gold Rising PAC’s actions.

The University’s administration has no affiliation with the Maroon and Gold Rising PAC, according to University spokesperson Jake Ricker.

Before the election of four new regents on March 15, the letter’s authors urged legislators to reject the PACs slate of candidates.

“No matter the outcome of Monday’s vote, it is clear that the Regent selection process is broken. It is ineffective, inaccessible, and clearly very susceptible to the influence of moneyed special interests,” the letter reads.

The University Board of Regents is a governing body that consists of 12 members who serve six-year terms, with four of the positions up for reelection every two years. A convention of the Minnesota House and Senate elects one regent from each of the state’s eight congressional districts and four from the state at large. One of the four at-large regents must be a student at the time of election.

The Regent Candidate Advisory Council (RCAC), a 24-member body founded in 1988, independently recruits and recommends regent candidates to the legislative higher education committees, which deliver final suggestions to the full Minnesota Legislature.

Maroon and Gold Rising PAC co-chairs Tom Devine and Peggy Lucas are former University regents. John Engelen, another co-chair of the lobbying group, also sits on the RCAC.

Dan Wolter, chair of RCAC, said he was surprised to learn that Engelen and RCAC member Jim Erickson serve on both the RCAC and the Maroon and Gold Rising PAC. Erickson’s term on the RCAC expires in January 2022.

“I’m just concerned that even the perception of some kind of invisible hand of special interest involvement in our process will have a chilling effect on recruiting strong candidates who aren’t hand-picked by [Maroon and Gold Rising PAC],” Wolter said in an email to the Minnesota Daily. “I think the Legislature needs to take a good hard look at the process to see how it can be improved.”

University law professor and former chief White House ethics lawyer Richard Painter said he was shocked to see the Maroon and Gold Rising PAC use of University-owned photos on its website. The trademarks have since been removed, according to Painter, after he emailed President Joan Gabel.

“You should not be flying the colors of the University pretending to be acting on behalf of the University — which is what this PAC was doing — and they were pretending to advance the interests of the University,” Painter said. “A lot of what they’re advocating is not in the interests of the University,” such as elevating the importance of adding University programs rather than cutting tuition costs, he added.

In addition to lobbying for regent candidates, the PAC has advocated increasing the state’s budget for higher education, which decreased from 13.5% in 1980 to 7.1% in 2020.

Jael Kerandi, chair of the student representatives to the Board of Regents, addressed the concerns about the Maroon and Gold Rising PAC at a meeting on March 12. Regent Powell did not respond to Kerandi’s statement and moved on to the next agenda item.

“The existing of these financial relationships between members of this body and the PAC undermine Minnesota’s constitutional sovereignty, and in doing so sow the seeds of mistrust in a process that should be free of even the appearance of impropriety,” Kerandi said at the meeting.