Final higher ed bill includes insurance waiver expansion, U mining program

A conference committee passed a handful of provisions relating to higher education policy Wednesday night, with implications for the University of Minnesota.Because the versions of the House and Senate higher education omnibus bills were slightly different, a conference committee met in order to strike a compromise between the two. The bill will now return to both chambers before it reaches Gov. Mark Dayton’s desk.This session’s bill has many provisions for the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system but also has important pieces for the University, including the creation of a new mining program and changes in health insurance waivers.A provision originally included in the House version of the bill would add a member of the Minnesota Student Legislative Coalition to the Student Advisory Council, which makes recommendations to the state Office of Higher Education.The conference committee passed their version Wednesday that did not include the provision for the MSLC.“I feel like the committee didn’t give it the full consideration it deserved,” MSLC director Chris Tastad said. “It’s the kind of thing that’s for the betterment of students, for the betterment of how the OHE operates. It seemed to be the right direction in establishing the MSLC. It’s something that we’ll continue to fight for.”The bill would bring a mining program to the University. Continue Reading

Months-long arbitration between University, custodians is coming to a close

After sending their arguments to an arbitrator, the University of Minnesota and its custodial workers now await a decision about their battle over new cleaning practices.The arbitration process between the University and the worker’s union, Teamsters Local 320, began in February after the University implemented a new team cleaning practice that workers say violates their contract. The union filed a grievance last June before the new system was implemented.April 9 marked the final day that either side could submit arguments to the arbitrator. In the union’s contract, the arbitrator has 30 days to make a decision. But Curt Swenson, a business agent for the union who is leading the arbitration, said that requirement was waived as a gesture of good faith and that he expects the arbitrator to have a decision soon.Swenson said he’s been a part of many negotiations with the University in the past but the results of this arbitration will affect a larger group of workers.“Usually grievances in the past may affect one or two or three. This will affect all the [custodial employees], which have numbers in the hundreds,” Swenson said.Workers were upset when the University implemented the new cleaning process last August.In the previous system, custodians were required to clean an entire area, like a whole floor or part of one, in a building. Continue Reading

Legislature selects University grad Tom Devine to replace Sviggum as regent

The Minnesota Legislature selected Tom Devine Wednesday to fill the empty Board of Regents seat.Devine will take over for former Regent Steve Sviggum, who left the board in early March after a lengthy conflict of interest review concluded he could not serve as both a regent and communications chief with the Senate Republican Caucus.Devine was one of two candidates the full Legislature considered to fill Sviggum’s seat. The other was Bob Vogel, president and CEO of New Market Bank. The Legislature chose Devine over Vogel by a 110-75 vote.Many legislators said it was Devine’s presence at the Legislature that won him the seat on the University of Minnesota’s governing board.“He’s been around the Capitol this whole session,” said Bob Dettmer, R-Forest Lake. “He’s the only one that came to my office. I got to know him.”Dettmer, who is the vice chair of the House Higher Education Policy and Finance committee, also voted for Devine Tuesday night when both higher education committees met to recommend a candidate but failed to do so.Instead, the full Legislature held a vote between Vogel and Devine.“Devine went around and talked to almost everybody,” said Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis. Continue Reading

Pirates invade St. Paul in swashbuckling style

The audience watched the screen as a reel of waves crashed over the sides of a sinking 18th century ship. Lightning flashed and thunder crackled.As the film ended, the screen rose to reveal a solid-bronze bell entombed in a chamber of salt water.The bell is one of the last remaining pieces of that ship, the Whydah Galley — the world’s only discovered pirate ship — and a key component of the “Real Pirates” exhibit, which opened Saturday at the Science Museum of Minnesota in St. Paul.“These are the only authentic pirate ship artifacts that have ever been recovered,” said Mike Day, senior vice president at the Science Museum.Along with other pieces of the ship and pirate artifacts, the bell will be on display at the museum until September.Discovered in 1984 by explorer Barry Clifford and his team, the artifacts have been in museums on the east coast for years. For the past five years, they’ve toured major museums in the U.S.The Whydah was a slave ship that launched from England in the 18th century and made regular trips to the West Indies to trade goods in exchange for slaves.Realistic mannequins of pirates lie within a replica of the 18th century Whydah ship at the Real Pirates exhibit. Many pirates of the ship were former slaves who gained their freedom.But on one routine trip, the Whydah was overtaken by the famous pirate Sam Bellamy.The English-born Bellamy moved to Cape Cod at a young age where he fell in love with a woman named Maria Hallett. Continue Reading

Proposed bill would make it harder for legislators to serve on the Board of Regents

A bill introduced Wednesday would make it harder for former legislators to serve on the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents.The bill, introduced by Rep. Kate Knuth, DFL-New Brighton, would prevent legislators from serving on the board for two years after they left the Legislature. It was created in light of the increased amount of legislators currently serving on the board.The bill would also apply to those wishing to serve on Minnesota State Colleges and Universities’ Board of Trustees.Knuth, who’s also a Ph.D. candidate at the University, said the board is an essential part of the University and needs to have a diverse, talented membership.“Legislators are just part of that,” Knuth said.Last year the Legislature appointed Steve Sviggum and Laura Brod, two former Republican legislators, to the board that was met with a mixed reaction.“The Board of Regents selection process has become really politicized,” Knuth said.Although the proposed legislation wouldn’t have affected Sviggum when he joined the Board, his and Brod’s appointment influenced Knuth’s decision to try to get a variety of members on the board in the future.Under the proposed legislation, Brod could not have been appointed to the board. But Knuth said the bill is for moving forward and couldn’t be applied retroactively.In response to the bill, Sviggum said, “I’m not sure it is a good idea. I’m not sure you want to restrict potential regents.”Sviggum said limiting who could serve on the board could negatively affect the University.But University President Eric Kaler dismissed that notion.“There are lots of talented people who are willing to give time to the University. I’m not sure it would limit access to qualified people,” Kaler said.Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, who chairs the House Higher Education, Policy and Finance committee said he was unsure of the future of the bill but wasn’t in favor of it.“I don’t imagine I’d be supporting that,” Nornes said.Nornes said he didn’t think legislators serving the board had been a problem in the past.Knuth said the two-year period wasn’t final and could potentially be four. Continue Reading

Kaler makes pitch to House higher ed committee

University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler returned to the Legislature Thursday to once again make his case for more funding for the University in the upcoming bonding bill.It was Kaler’s first trip to the House Higher Education Police and Finance committee, where he demonstrated to legislators the University’s value to the state and the need for funding, especially for repairs and upkeep to buildings. He visited the Senate’s higher education committee last week.Kaler told the committee that while he was thankful for money he had received in the past, especially the $83 million the University received for the Physics and Nanotechnology building that broke ground last fall, Higher Education Asset Preservation and Restoration (HEAPR) funds are necessary.The HEAPR funds are necessary now, Kaler said, so that the University doesn’t have to pay for continual upkeep of deteriorating buildings.”As my wife Karen told me, quiet poetically,” Kaler said, “HEAPR is cheaper.”Of the 850 building between its five campuses, Kaler said, “25 percent of our buildings are at least 70 years old.”Legislators asked the president for more detailed information on the University’s economic impact on the state and the impact of cuts made to the University to be able to fully understand its need.Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, said former University president Bob Bruininks had in the past provided thorough data in that area and that he hopes Kaler will do the same.Although the University requested $90 million in its HEAPR request in the fall, Kaler said that was a fraction what’s needed to make necessary renovations and maintain buildings.”These are certainly not the University’s entire HEAPR needs. That number is so large. Well more than $500 million if not closer to $1 billion,” Kaler said.Gov. Mark Dayton included $20 million in HEAPR funds in his proposed bonding bill.In addition to his administrative team, Kaler also brought with him students from the Minnesota Student Legislative Coalition to provide a student’s perspective on the discussion.MSLC director Christopher Tastad testified to the value of his experience at the University’s Lake Itasca Biological Station and its influence on incoming students. The station, as well as the Old Main Utility Building, is a component of the University’s capital request that Dayton included in his initial bonding request.”I think it’s very important that we get this HEAPR number up and the steam power plant and Itasca remain in the bill,” Kaler said.Tastad said MSLC supported the University’s request and hoped legislators would be receptive.”I think the University’s put together a modest proposal,” Tastad said.Kaler said he was unsure whether the HEAPR funding could increase in the final bonding bill.”It’s too early to be sure of that. Continue Reading

Voter ID amendment draws opposition to state Capitol

The controversial voter ID amendment went through its first test at the state Capitol on Wednesday.The Minnesota State Senate Local Government and Elections Committee listened to hours of public testimony before deciding to table the amendment for further discussion.Thirty-one people registered to testify during the hearing that lasted more than five hours with additional walk-in speakers. Testifiers and observers packed the Senate hearing room, and about 50 additional observers filed into an overflow room to watch on closed-circuit television. An overwhelming majority, including University of Minnesota student Sydney Jordan, testified against the proposed constitutional amendment that would require Minnesotans to show photo identification when they vote. Jordan, an Illinois native and member of the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group, testified that the amendment would disenfranchise student voters.“Such an amendment would deter many students from voting, including myself, as many of us do not possess IDs with our current address.”Only a handful testified in favor of it.Members of advocacy groups from both sides of the issue went to the Capitol to voice their opinion.“Basically, it’s going to make it harder for students to vote,” said Joey Dobson, a campus organizer for MPIRG.Dobson and MPIRG oppose the proposed constitutional amendment. She said they would continue to fight it even if it’s put on the ballot.Republican legislators proposed a bill in the 2011 legislative session, but it was vetoed by Gov. Mark Dayton because he said it lacked bipartisan support.Dan McGrath, the executive director of Minnesota Majority, said his organization found record numbers of voter fraud. A 2011 Minnesota Majority study found that there were 113 convictions for voter fraud in 2008, mainly resulting from people voting despite being ineligible to do so.McGrath said election fraud was a significant problem inMinnesota elections and said his group was responsible for finding fraud, not the “cracker jack election workers.”“We need improvement in the process in, I think, a very major way,” McGrath said.McGrath said the testimonies claiming that the proposed amendment would disenfranchise voters were “ridiculous.”A November 2010 report from Citizens for Election Integrity Minnesota found only seven cases of voter impersonation investigations since 2008. Continue Reading

Proposed bill would let 18-year-olds drink in bars

Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, proposed a bill Monday that would allow 18-year-olds to drink in bars and restaurants, but would still deny them the ability to purchase alcohol in stores.The bill would also allow Minnesotans 16 years and older to drink at bars and restaurants with their parent or guardian. Wisconsin has a similar law but without an age requirement.Kahn has introduced the bill multiple times in the past without success. She said she proposed the legislation because of problems of binge drinking at the University of Minnesota, which she represents.“I’m totally appalled by people going out on their 21st birthday and getting totally smashed,” Kahn said.She thinks the increase in binge drinking was a result of the increase in the required age to drink.Student reaction to the proposed legislation was mixed. Students under the age of 21 said they thought the legislation would be a good idea while some older students said it would cause problems.Several students said they thought lowering the age to 18 would raise trouble for high school students, some of whom are 18.Andrew Zurek said he worried that students could leave their high school campus and drink during lunch while Madeleine Laurion said it could conflict with school sports. Both said they drank before they were 21.Mariah Major said that if the law changed, there would be a difficult transition time for a few years.“There would be a period where everyone would be drinking so much because they were so excited about it.”Lauren Schreffler, a kinesiology freshman, said she thought it would make more sense to make all drinking legal at age 18.“You can go and die for your country, but you can’t have a beer,” Schreffler said. Continue Reading

Minn. Senate interns to go unpaid

Due to budget cuts in the Minnesota State Senate, student legislative interns will no longer get paid — effective immediately.Funding for the Senate internship program is being cut, which means that although college students can still intern for the Senate, they will no longer get paid, said Steve Sviggum, communications director for the Senate Republican Caucus. Sviggum is also a member of the University of Minnesota’s Board of Regents.Sviggum said the Senate budget was finalized Tuesday, the first day of the legislative session and that the Senate didn’t have money for the program.Reimbursing interns costs the Senate about $120,000 a biennium, or $60,000 each session, Sviggum said.Although the money is gone, Sviggum said the internship program remains intact.“They will still be having their internship and their on-the-job training, but there won’t be any reimbursement,” Sviggum said.Sviggum said cuts came from a 5 percent cut that was mandated the previous session.The Senate cut about $2.67 million from its budget, including several full-time staff positions from the Democratic-Farmer-Labor minority caucus. The budget — drawn up by Republican legislators — did not cut any Republican staff positions, which left DFL legislators fuming Tuesday.House of Representatives intern positions are also unpaid, Sviggum said. He said he didn’t think House interns had ever been paid in the past. Continue Reading