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Austin lawmaker's bill would prohibit employees from being U of M regents

ST. PAUL — An Austin lawmaker has introduced a bill that would prohibit University of Minnesota employees from serving on the board of regents.

DFL Rep. Jeanne Poppe said she introduced the bill because of what happened recently with Steve Sviggum, who worked at the U's Humphrey School of Public Affairs and was elected to the board of regents. An ad hoc regents committee determined that was a conflict of interest for Sviggum, and he will quit his part-time teaching job to stay on the board.

"It really addresses the Steve Sviggum-like situation where you’ve got somebody that has a direct connection to the U. That kind of thing should be eliminated," Poppe said.

Poppe’s bill would prohibit people who work for the university or are providing a service to the university under a contract from serving on the board of regents. It also asks the board to amend its policy on member responsibilities to state that members should be nonpartisan.

Clyde Allen, chairman of the board of regents, said the board will review its policies and bylaws because of the potential for conflicts of interest. He said he's not sure legislation during this session is the best way to handle the situation.


"I do think it's a very important subject, and we need to think it through," he said.

Allen also said he's not sure the nonpartisanship provision is necessary.

"In the eight years I have been on the board, I have not seen instances of partisan politics on the board," he said.

Rep. Mike Benson of Rochester, who serves on the House Higher Education Policy and Finance Committee, said he would consider changing the law to prohibit university employees from serving on the board.

"I would take a hard look at it. I think we need to make sure there is no conflict of interest," he said.

But Benson said the requirement that board members be nonpartisan is unrealistic.

"That is not possible. We all have our views. We all have our political persuasion, and that is not a bad thing," he said.

Rep. Kim Norton of Rochester disagreed. Norton, a co-sponsor of Poppe’s bill, said people shouldn't be involved in party politics or run for office while they're on the board.


"If you are going to be a regent, you need to set that aside and be a regent," she said.

Poppe said there was an unsuccessful attempt a few weeks ago to get these provisions included in a higher-education bill.

Sviggum could not be reached comment.

Poppe said she might consider a bill in the future to prohibit former state lawmakers from immediately serving on the board of regents. The GOP-led Legislature supported appointing former GOP House Speaker Sviggum and former GOP Rep. Laura Brod to the board. Democrats accused Republicans of making the board appointments political.

"I just am concerned that now that we start putting partisan people in and they carry that in with them and they continue doing partisan activities that will damage the integrity of the board of regents," Poppe said.

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