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U of M President pleads his bonding bill case at Capitol

University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler addresses reporters about the U's priorities this session on Friday, Jan. 27.

University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler today brought his familiar message to the state Capitol: We’re important to this state, and we want money.

The U would like to see a large borrowing bill this session — and one that includes more higher-education spending. Kaler touted the many projects waiting to be built on campuses across the state.

The university’s request for $169.5 million in state support is roughly $60 million more than what Gov. Mark Dayton has proposed.

Kaler told reporters that critical upkeep and maintenance needs to be completed on the U’s aging buildings and labs. He also described what university officials hope to build and renovate: a heating and power plant, an American Indian resource center in Duluth and an environmental lab in Itasca, to name a few.

This is the university president’s first full session at the Capitol, and he brought a new government relations team with him, including Jason Rohloff, who has worked behind the scenes in the state House before.

The university and Dayton differ the most on maintenance money, known in government jargon as Higher Education Asset Preservation and Replacement funding. A “not very poetic acronym,” Kaler said. Dayton would allocate $20 million for HEAPR — $70 million less than what the U requested.

“It’s absolutely a concern,” Kaler said. “We really need to get the HEAPR dollar number increased so that we can get in buildings. There’s critical maintenance that needs to be done.”

The chances that a large bonding bill will even pass — Dayton’s sits at $775 million — are uncertain. But Republican lawmakers pushed back against a bonding bill last session, before Dayton walked out of 11th-hour negotiations with a $498 million bill.

The university received about $90 million in that off-year bill alone.. Kaler said it’s likely that receiving that money will make it tougher for the University to get its request this session.

For once, however, the university’s priorities align with Republicans in the Legislature.

Rep. Bud Nornes, chairman of the House Higher Education Committee, generally supports state allocation for maintenance, and House Majority Leader Matt Dean said lawmakers are willing to work with the university on that point.

Dean wouldn’t specify how a bonding bill would fare among Republicans.

Along with discussions of bonding, Kaler also touched on student debt, tuition and whether the Vikings will play at TCF Bank Stadium.

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