Earmarked for higher ed.

Some public universities have received tens of millions of dollars in federal earmarks. With rare exceptions, the University of Minnesota hasn’t sought earmarks.

Mike Mullen

 In 1990, after 10 years in the Minnesota Legislature, Donna Peterson returned to the University of Minnesota. Peterson, a 1971 graduate, took a job lobbying on behalf of the University. At that point, the office was somewhat limited.

“Just me,” Peterson said.

Today, the University’s government relations office employs six full-time staff members, including two federal lobbyists, and Peterson, who has risen to associate vice president for University Relations.

Since 2006, the University has spent $7.8 million on lobbying and through the first half of 2010 ranked eighth in expenses among federal education lobbying clients. In the first quarter of this year, the University spent more than it did in all of 2005, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

The University’s increased effort and expenditure on the state and federal levels is not exceptional and mirror spending trends across the country. Since 2000, the total amount spent on federal education lobbying has more than doubled nationally, with nearly $100 million spent last year.

With crucial research and patent legislation and billions of dollars in research money and federal earmarks at stake, Peterson has overseen a dramatic change in University lobbying.

“Since I’ve come, we have expanded —” Peterson said, and then stopped herself. “I wouldn’t even say expanded. We now do federal relations.”

Rutgers University’s Beth Leech, who has studied federal lobbying and its outcomes for 15 years, said while spending does not always have its desired effect, the lobbying industry grows each year.

“We see spending on lobbying going up, and up, and up, and up,” Leech said. “It’s a political arms race.

‘A new political art form’

The modern era of political lobbying came, in part, thanks to competition for funding among universities. In the mid-1970s, as Tufts University sought funding for a nutrition research center, its president hired lobbyist Gerald Cassidy.

According to Robert Kaiser, author of the book, “So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government,” Cassidy reached out to Massachusetts’ powerful Congressman Thomas “Tip” O’Neill and Sen. Ted Kennedy, who delivered the appropriations funding for a research center.

“Their success for Tufts,” Kaiser wrote, “would create a new kind of Washington business and a new political art form, the earmark.”

The success also drew the attention of Tufts’ neighboring schools, Boston University and Boston College. Cassidy’s firm, Cassidy & Associates, is now among the largest lobbying firms in the United States. But it has not strayed from its roots: The firm’s second-largest client over the past two years, behind the dictatorial government of the Republic of Equatorial Guinea, was Boston University.

Today, earmarks are a booming source of income for some universities. According to the watchdog group Citizens Against Government Waste, of $16.5 billion in federal earmarks in the 2010 budget, nearly $2 billion went to higher education institutions.

Some schools have done better than others. The University of Alabama received a federal earmark worth $30 million for the establishment of an “interdisciplinary science and engineering teaching and research corridor,” and a further $9.52 million for “construction, renovation and equipment” on its Tuscaloosa campus, according to Taxpayers for Common Sense. In total, the University of Alabama received nearly $59 million in federal money.

Another fortunate recipient was the University of Mississippi, which received $8 million for “facilities and equipment” at its medical school in Jackson. Combined, Mississippi State University, the University of Mississippi, the University of Southern Mississippi and the University of Mississippi Medical School took in about $117 million in federal earmarks.

Leech said earmarks can almost always be traced back to a lobbying effort.

“No one gets an earmark unless they lobby for it,” she said.

Still, lobbying alone is not enough. Leech pointed to research indicating money spent by universities is not necessarily a predictor for receiving earmarks, unless that state has a member on the House or Senate Appropriations Committee.

The University of Alabama’s earmarks are largely due to U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., while the Mississippi schools benefit from Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., who is vice-chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. Chairman Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, used his position to secure more than $33 million for the University of Hawaii, including $5 million for a supercomputing center and $9.5 million for the Panoramic Survey Telescope and Rapid Response System, which studies the threat asteroids and comets pose to the Earth.

To get its $58 million, the University of Alabama spent only $360,000 in federal lobbying, while the four Mississippi state schools spent a combined $450,000 for $117 million in returns. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the University of Hawaii has not lobbied the federal government since 2004.

The money these schools receive may correspond more to influence and personal connections than lobbying expenditure: Sens. Shelby, Cochran and Inouye are alumni of the Universities of Alabama, Mississippi and Hawaii, respectively.

By and large, the University of Minnesota has not pursued federal earmarks. In 2010, University of Minnesota campuses received about $4 million in federal earmarks, only $1.6 million of it coming to the Minneapolis campus. University President Bob Bruininks said this is part of a Minnesota position that dates back decades.

“If you go back over the history of the University of Minnesota going back to the days when we had [Sen. Hubert] Humphrey and [Sen. Walter] Mondale, you don’t find much evidence of that kind of work,” Bruininks said.

Bruininks also said he has a personal opposition to education earmarks.

“I don’t go to Washington to do lobbying for earmarks,” Bruininks said. “That has not been something I’ve done in the past nine years.

“As a taxpayer, I just don’t think much of earmarks strategies.”

Republican Tom Emmer declined to comment for this story, but at an Oct. 15 debate on campus, he suggested the University should examine administrative salaries and look for ways to rein in spending.

“You can’t fund anything if you don’t have the money to fund it,” Emmer said.

Tom Horner, the Independence Party candidate for governor, said he would support the University seeking federal money, but only with clear goals in mind.

“Should it be an organization that is just looking at every dollar regardless of how it might be used or where it might land?” Horner asked rhetorically. “No. Should it be pursuing every dollar that it needs to achieve very clear outcomes? Absolutely.”

Both Horner and Democratic candidate Mark Dayton pledged “full support” for the University budget. Dayton, who served in the U.S. Senate from 2001 to 2007, said he would stand behind University efforts to get federal funding, including earmarks.

“I certainly support the University in any attempt, and every attempt, to gain federal money,” Dayton said. “Any source that supports the University is one that I would support.”

The President and the Senators

With $380,000 in federal lobbying costs through the first half of 2010, the University of Minnesota has outspent some of the richest schools in the country, including Harvard, Yale and Princeton.

The University appeared to have a large jump in spending from 2007 to 2008. But Channing Riggs, the University’s chief federal lobbyist, explained that new federal legislation passed in 2007 — which was aimed at increased transparency in reporting — is largely to blame for the apparent increase.

University General Counsel Mark Rotenberg advised the Government Relations office to report all facets of lobbying, including the travel and salary expenses of visiting faculty members or administrators. This meant that when Bruininks visits Capitol Hill, as he did three times in 2009, the University reports his travel and salary during the trip as an expense.

“I would suggest we slightly over-report,” Riggs said. “I can go through the various schools of our caliber, and how many people they have doing government relations, and I would say we’re average.”

Bruininks said that while he has regularly travelled to Washington representing higher education interests, his three trips in 2009 were among the only that he could recall in which he specifically advocated on behalf of the University. Bruininks met with members of the U.S. Department of Transportation and members of Minnesota’s Congressional delegation regarding the University’s concerns on the pending Central Corridor project. Bruininks said he inquired about possible federal funding to alleviate expenses the University might incur during and after construction of the light-rail line. In September 2009, the University sued the Metropolitan Council over the issue, and a settlement was reached last month allowing construction to go forward as planned.

Bruininks said his Washington, D.C., visits were fruitless.

“From that trip, I’ll be honest with you, there was no federal help at all,” Bruininks said. “So you could say that while I presented our concerns, and presented the concerns we still have to deal with, there wasn’t any possibility of getting any additional federal financial assistance.”

For additional aid on light-rail transit issues, the University enlisted Patton Boggs, a powerhouse D.C. firm which boasts former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., as one of its lobbyists. The University paid Patton Boggs $40,000 in 2009, and $40,000 more through the first half of 2010.

Riggs described the University’s relationship with the firm as “temporary-as-needed.”

“It had to do with very complicated federal regulations,” Riggs said. “We just decided we didn’t have any expertise there.”

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Patton Boggs had four lobbyists representing the University in 2009, and five through the first two quarters of 2010.

The University paid $80,000 over two years, making it one of the smaller clients for Patton Boggs, which regularly makes more than $40 million a year. But, by employing a big firm, the University got a good deal of influence.

Rodney Slater was among the lobbyists who represented the University. In July, a series of amendments to lobbying reports were filed on behalf of Patton Boggs to correct an error: Slater had apparently neglected to mention he had previously held a government position, a disclosure required under federal law. From 1997 to 2001, Slater had served as the U.S. Secretary of Transportation.

‘A level of support’

Peterson said when it comes to lobbying the state government, her longstanding relationships with legislators and their comparatively lighter schedules make lobbying a simpler task.

On the state level, the University has small contracts with lobbying firms North State Advisors and Dorsey & Whitney.

Nationally, the University has employed Cornerstone Government Affairs for eight years, spending an annual $80,000 in exchange for lobbying of the House of Representatives, Senate and Department of Agriculture.

Cornerstone, which works exclusively on behalf of the University’s College of Food, Agriculture and Natural Resource Sciences, is employed by several other universities. It’s also retained by several agriculture-related companies, including Cargill and CropLife America, a major pesticide manufacturer.

Riggs said she works almost constantly with other schools, most often other large research universities. Last November, as President Barack Obama put together a budget plan, Riggs helped coordinate a letter to the White House Office of Management and Budget signed by each of the Big Ten presidents and chancellors. The letter advocated a number of specific positions, including an increase in Pell Grant amounts, and “a level of support for the National Institutes of Health which contributes to the reversal of the recent downward trend in the NIH budget.”

The impact of the letter itself cannot be measured, but the universities got their wish: The Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, passed in March, included a $36 billion 10-year increase in Pell Grants, and NIH funding increased 2.3 percent over the 2009 level.

According to lobbying reports, Riggs and her colleague Dan Gilchrist have represented University interests on federal patent reform, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, commonly known as “the stimulus bill,” and the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the health care overhaul signed into law in March.

For the most part, Riggs and Peterson said, the University seeks only to increase the amount of research money the federal government makes available for the NIH or the National Science Foundation, at which point University researchers bid for peer-reviewed funding of specific projects.

Money well-spent

Early in 2010, University professor Graham Candler made a trip to Washington, D.C., to meet with members of Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s staff. Candler’s trip was organized through the Government Relations office and involved him signing forms to account for his effort, but lobbying for funds was his own idea.

Candler sought, and received, the lone federal earmark to the University’s Minneapolis campus in 2010, a $1.6 million federal grant to fund research into numerical calculations and simulations of hypersonic flow.

Candler had made similar successful trips in the past.

“Our congressional delegation, some of these things resonate with them, and some of these things don’t,” he said. “I’m able to say, with a straight face, this is the best place in the world to do this kind of work, and that carries some weight with it.”

Candler said the majority of the money goes toward salaries for a team of graduate and post-doctoral students who work under him and two other professors. The team performs computer simulations of hypersonic flight. An enormous homemade computer in the basement of Akerman Hall has run calculations 24 hours a day for the last two and a half years. Candler said simulation codes that have come from the research are now being used by institutions across the country, including the Department of Defense.

“I know that there are cases where there is so-called pork, and earmarks, where the money is not well-spent,” Candler said. “Here, the money is being very well-spent.”