Legislative & Political Notebook: News Story Clouds University Budget


By Don Davis

The University of Minnesota prepares to ask legislators to approve a $1.8 billion budget as some lawmakers question a Wall Street Journal story that showed the school has an excessive administration budget.

University President Eric Kaler told reporters Friday that he agrees with legislators’ concerns about a top-heavy budget, but said the national newspaper article was misleading in saying the university has the largest administrative payroll of any research university.

The fact is, Kaler said, more than 1,000 employees were on the list the Journal used to draw its conclusion. But, he added, a third on the list are professors and another third are not paid by university or tuition funds.

Even with what he termed the Journal inaccuracies, Kaler said he agrees with a pair of lawmakers who asked for a study on administrative staff levels.

“We’re eager to do that,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, and Senate Higher Education Chairwoman Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, met with Kaler earlier in the week and asked him to look into the situation.

“We ask that you enact both a short-term analysis … as well as exploring the in-depth analysis that other Big Ten universities have conducted,” the senators wrote to Kaler.

The president said he plans to deliver lawmakers a preliminary report by March 15.

The size of the administration was controversial when Kaler arrived in Minnesota 18 months ago and he said he already was looking into it, but changing such a large institution does not happen overnight.

“Much of what was talked about happened prior to my arrival,” Kaler said.

Nolan likes ag

Rick Nolan sounds thrilled to sit on the U.S. House Agriculture Committee, and he hopes a personal relationship with the House speaker could help the cause.

“It is my first love,” the congressman said about agriculture as he rejoined the House after a 30-year absence.

The politician who represents the northeastern quarter of the state joins two other Minnesota Democrats on the committee: Collin Peterson of western Minnesota and Tim Walz from the south.

Unlike Peterson, who is the committee’s top Democrat, Nolan said he will take part in work on a new farm bill even if Republican House Speaker John Boehner refuses Peterson’s demand to promise the full House will hear a bill that comes out of the committee.

“I know John Boehner and I like John Boehner,” Nolan said in an interview.

Nolen said his cousin is a key Boehner staffer and they have talked at various social activities, building a relationship with a man who makes many critical decisions. It was Boehner who would not bring a farm bill to a full House vote last year.

The ag committee oversees the forestry industry, where Nolan worked for years. He owned and operated a forest products company in Emily, bought logs from local loggers and sold pallets.

Nolan took quite a step up when he was elected  Nov. 6. He now is resigning his latest government post: serving on his township planning board.

Franken to help

U.S. Sen. Al Franken promises to help Minnesota legislators working to revamp Minnesota health-care programs.

The Minnesota Democrat emerged Friday from a closed-door meeting with key state lawmakers and said it is important to save Minnesota’s nation-leading health-care system.

While Franken and state legislators met, Minnesota’s human services commissioner was in Washington, D.C., trying to get federal officials to release guidelines for the so-called Obamacare health reform in time that states can implement it.

“There has been a little frustration about getting regulations,” Franken said.

The new federal health-care law requires the state to launch a mostly online health insurance sales marketplace by Oct. 31, and state officials say they need to have legislation in place by the end of March to meet that deadline. But state law-writers need to know federal rules before they can finish their work.

Franken said he is leaning on federal officials to push them to get the rules wrapped up.

State Rep. Tom Huntley, DFL-Duluth, said that federal officials are overwhelmed with work needed to implement Obamacare.

Huntley sponsors a bill to replace the MinnesotaCare state-subsidized health insurance program. It would replace MinnesotaCare and Medical Assistance, a program for the poor, with the federal government paying for most of the expenses of the new system.

Arguing, not talking

Republican and Democratic state Senate leaders spent something south of 10 minutes on the session’s opening day laying the groundwork for the year, emphasizing their hope to work together for Minnesotans.

Less than 48 hours later, they spent something north of two hours arguing about the budget majority Democrats gave minority Republicans. It was one of the most heated arguments, if not the most heated, that early in the session in recent years.

So Forum News Service asked Senate Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie, if he and Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, had discussed the budget matter before airing their dirty laundry in public. Hann said they had not talked since the Nov. 6 election, other than during quick handshakes when they appeared together.

Bakk’s office said he had called Hann after Republicans named him their leader, but Hann never responded. Since then, apparently neither has asked for a meeting with the other.

Tuition freeze sought

Kaler is telling lawmakers if they give the university nearly $43 million extra that tuition can be kept at current levels two more years.

“Everywhere I go I hear that,” he said about freezing tuition.

Kaler said a tuition freeze likely would encourage more applications. As it is, the university expects 40,300 applications for 5,400 student spots it has available.

“I don’t think students should graduate from the University of Minnesota with $27,000 in debt,” he said.

The tuition freeze request is the largest increase Kaler seeks in the university’s nearly $1.2 billion two-year request to lawmakers.

The second biggest is $36 million for research in areas ranging from robotics and conservation to food safety and brain treatments.

The university also seeks $1.5 million to forgive education loans for health-care professionals who locate in underserved areas such as rural Minnesota.

While higher education has received larger cuts in recent years than many state programs, lawmakers and the governor face a $1.1 billion deficit as they write a two-year budget to begin July 1.

Dayton gone

Commissioners and staff members have met with Gov. Mark Dayton at the governor’s residence the past couple of weeks as he prepares a budget, including what are expected to be major tax changes, for delivery Jan. 22.

Dayton has not been in the Capitol since Christmas. Instead, he is home recovering from back surgery.

Besides his budget announcement later this month, Dayton plans a 7 p.m. Feb. 6 State of the State speech to legislators.

Franken thinking land

Franken says he is working to develop a stance on what to do with school trust lands around the Boundary Waters Canoe Wilderness Area.

“I’m really starting to immerse myself in it,” he said after spending several days in closed-door meetings on the subject. “I’m trying to process it.”

As the Minnesota Democrat said, the issue has been around for decades. It involves land the state owns in northeastern Minnesota that was set aside to raise money for schools across the state, but the federal government surrounded 86,000 aces of the land when it established the wilderness area.

With the school land surrounded, the state cannot use it for forestry, mining and other uses that could generate money for schools.

The state wants to swap the land for federal land to give the wilderness area more space and to give schools more of a chance to get land that can produce a profit. Washington would need to approve any such swap.

GOP: Is it just DL now?

Rural House Republicans are upset that urban Twin Cities lawmakers lead House Democrats, and about the decision to include farm programs in a committee that also deals with environment and natural resources issues.

Many Republicans say it appears the other party has dropped “F” from DFL (Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party).

Rep. Rod Hamilton, R-Mountain Lake, tweeted: “Think I will file a lawsuit to get the F removed from DFL.”

Faster permits wanted

The state still takes too long to issue environmental permits to businesses wanting to build or expand, the Dayton administration says.

Administration and legislative actions the past few years have made progress, Dayton’s office says. Ninety-six percent of environmental permits are issued within 150 days, the current state goal.

But Dayton Chief of Staff Tina Smith said the governor wants some permits issued in 90 or fewer days.

“Gov. Dayton has directed both the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to issue or deny permits within 90 days or 150 days, depending on the nature and complexity of the permit,” Smith said. “This new measure of efficiency will be good for business, good for our environment, and just plain good government.”

The quicker permits will be for projects such as storm water projects, which require less study.

Flooded cars?

Minnesota officials warn that cars damaged by Hurricane Sandy late last year could turn into Minnesotans’ nightmares this year.

Those cars may be on used car lots.

“Vehicles that look clean might not have been inspected by a professional for mechanical and electrical performance,” said Patricia McCormack, director of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety Driver and Vehicle Services Division. “Hidden damage can cause an owner serious problems weeks or even months later.”

Minnesota law requires a dealer to tell a potential buy in writing if new and late-model vehicles have been damaged.

Franken: Just working

Franken said he is doing nothing more than what he was elected to do, not trying to lay groundwork for his 2014 re-election.

“It will take care of itself if I put my head down and do the work,” he told reporters at the Minnesota Capitol, where he met on health-care issues and talked to youths learning about government.

Franken is raising money for a second run for the Senate.