A bipartisan group of former University of Minnesota regents and state lawmakers is working to improve the school's standing at the State Capitol ahead of a legislative session that could yield bruising budget cuts.
They have formed Maroon and Gold Rising, a group that lobbies state lawmakers and even contributes to their campaign coffers through a political action committee. Members of the group sprang into action in its inaugural year, helping secure the U $75 million in infrastructure funding that was included in a nearly $1.9 billion bonding bill passed in October. The group is now gearing up for next year's legislative session, when the state will likely wrestle with a multibillion-dollar budget deficit.
"We have to really sit down and prioritize what we're doing as a state. If we really value having a highly educated workforce in Minnesota, we're going to have to continue to invest in the students," said former U regent Tom Devine.
Devine and former regent Peggy Lucas are leading the group, which also includes former Republican and Democratic state lawmakers such as Amy Koch, Laura Brod, Kathy Sheran and Deanna Wiener.
Maroon and Gold Rising, which operates independently from the U's lobbying team, is trying to recast the school's image. The U's relationship with the Legislature has at times been rocky; lawmakers have criticized the university over the years for raising tuition and not making enough administrative cuts. Scandals in the athletics department also have been a source of tension.
Group members built rapport with state lawmakers this year and sent out more than $60,000 in political contributions split evenly between the DFL and GOP caucuses and leaders of key House and Senate committees. The contributions helped open new lines of communication, Devine said, which lobbyists used to advocate for building projects and funding parity with the Minnesota State college system.
In recent years, the Legislature has allocated more funding to Minnesota State than to the U, departing from a longtime practice of funding the two systems almost equally. Koch, one of the group's lobbyists, said many lawmakers she spoke to had not realized the two systems diverged in funding.
In the recent bonding bill, Minnesota State received about $76 million in infrastructure funding and the U received roughly $75 million. The state also permitted the university to refinance debt at a lower interest rate, which will result in nearly $29 million in savings that will help pay for a new clinical research facility on the Twin Cities campus.
"We saw the university do well compared to some years past," said Maroon and Gold lobbyist Will Dammann, a U alum.
State Sen. Dave Senjem, a Rochester Republican who chairs the Senate capital investment committee, welcomed the group's push for parity between the two college systems. It was an argument he listened to and will likely honor moving forward, he said. "I'll be pushing that and advocating that direction because I think it's a reasonable thing," Senjem said.
Maroon and Gold Rising will have its work cut out for itself next year in attempting to advocate for the U's needs as lawmakers grapple with a projected $4.7 billion budget deficit. U leaders plan to ask for a nearly $47 million increase to the school's two-year budget.
Devine stressed that higher education institutions cannot withstand further budget cuts; in 2002, state appropriations made up about one-third of the U's budget. The state's contribution to the U has declined over the years, now making up just 17% of the budget. Administrators compensated for the decrease by hiking tuition, which now accounts for 24% of the U's total revenue compared with 16% in 2002.
"What happens when the defunding has happened? It's caused significant strains and forced tuition increases," Devine said. "We're going to have to do everything we can to hold the base [funding]."
Sen. Sandy Pappas, DFL-St. Paul, said she is more optimistic about the U's chances to receive funds for public works projects next year than she is for it to have its budget request fully funded. Those packages are "one of the few tools we have for an economic stimulus," she said.
Senjem added that the Legislature will likely focus on funding critical sectors such as health and human services and K-12, which were deeply affected by the pandemic. Other entities will have to "hunker down," he said.
"We have to take care of those that otherwise cannot take care of themselves … and then everything else becomes really difficult," Senjem said.