U lobbyists: Influence for hire

EDITORâÄôS NOTE: This is the second in a two-part series looking at higher education lobbying. Today’s looks at University-funded lobbying efforts. Donna Peterson was plucked from her seat in the Minnesota Senate in 1990 to serve as the associate vice president of the University of MinnesotaâÄôs Government and Community Relations, the department that handles lobbying efforts. Peterson spends her time at the State Capitol, âÄútelling a story,âÄù she says, of the UniversityâÄôs prestige, and its ability âÄî when given the right amount of funding âÄî to fulfill the UniversityâÄôs mission and serve the people of Minnesota. The University lobbies both locally and federally. So far this year, reported federal lobbying costs for the University have added up to $290,000 , according to the Center for Responsive Politics. ThatâÄôs comparable to other Big Ten schools, according to disclosures filed with Congress. Because of different state-by-state disclosure laws, the University as a higher education institution doesnâÄôt have to disclose state lobbying costs. The Life of a Lobbyist A big part of a higher education lobbyistâÄôs job is to be accountable when lawmakers call into question the use of potential funds. Recently, the primary questions have shifted away from the quality of undergraduate education. âÄúThereâÄôs more focus on the research side of the University and how might that drive the economy of the state,âÄù Peterson said. Research funding is also a dominant issue on the federal level, said federal relations Director Channing Riggs who lobbies MinnesotaâÄôs congressional delegation. âÄúI meet people all the time that say, âÄòWhy would the University have a lobbyist?âÄô âÄù she said. âÄúWe need to make sure that the 10 members of Congress from Minnesota know how important [issues] are to us, and to the state.âÄù Because of the heavy research focus among Big Ten schools, lobbyists from each work closely, trading information and pushing hard for that common priority. And the UniversityâÄôs lobbyists donâÄôt just bring information to legislators. They bring things back to campus, too, which helps shape the priorities set by administrators for inside the University. âÄúItâÄôs taking information out, but itâÄôs taking information back in as well,âÄù Peterson said. The UniversityâÄôs legislative agenda is laid out in advance by the administration and Board of Regents. For example, this yearâÄôs budget request in September went before the Regents, who approved it the following month. Between now and Jan. 1, 2009, the lobbyists will be on a networking blitz, meeting as many new lawmakers as they can. After the sessions starts, Peterson said sheâÄôll be at the Capitol, in and out of meetings and hearings. On top of strictly-business visits, the lobbyists say they also serve as information conduits for legislators. When a policymaker needs to know more about a given topic, theyâÄôll connect a University expert with that lawmaker. âÄúWeâÄôre not lobbying them directly, but in a way we are because weâÄôre showing them what we do, and helping them understand what happens here and what research is here,âÄù Peterson said. RiggsâÄô plan for work with members of Congress is similar to PetersonâÄôs; sheâÄôll spend time on policymakersâÄô âÄúhome turfâÄù when she can, but she travels to Capitol Hill about 12 times a year, mostly during the session. âÄúIn Washington, there are five-minute meetings with someone standing in the hallway,âÄù she said. âÄúYou meet with someone in their district office, theyâÄôll sit with you for a half-hour to talk about an issue.âÄù New Restraints Those trips to Washington, D.C., and RiggsâÄô other lobbying-related activity and expenditures are now required to be reported in accordance with federal lobby law, which went into effect this year. The tightened regulations are meant to keep lobbyists accountable, but career lobbyist Riggs said the transition from minimal required reporting to Congress to more meticulous record-keeping has taken some getting used to. âÄúUntil January we didnâÄôt have to do any of this, so now weâÄôre just trying to figure this out,âÄù she said. âÄúLike anything thatâÄôs new, it takes setting up some systems, but it seems to be easier to do.âÄù The University has opted, under attorney advisement, to interpret the somewhat âÄúambiguousâÄù reporting law as a call for the most comprehensive filings, the two lobbyists said. âÄúI report 100 percent of my time,âÄù Riggs said. âÄúSome of my colleagues from other schools donâÄôt.âÄù A Lobbying Contribution Report filed by Riggs on behalf of the University also indicates $36,125 spent on meeting expenses for the James Oberstar Forum on Transportation and Technology, named for the Democratic representative from the Iron Range . That event has been held for several years, but this yearâÄôs 200-perso n event fell under the umbrella of reportable expenditures, Riggs said. âÄúItâÄôs the first time weâÄôve had to report things like this,âÄù she added. âÄúWe decided we needed to report it.âÄù Separate laws require Riggs to report personal campaign contributions, which she made this year to Reps. Oberstar , D-Minn., and Tim Walz , D-Minn. There is no University policy or ethics code prohibiting lobbyists from donating, Peterson said. âÄúSheâÄôs free to write personal checks to whomever she would like to as a citizen,âÄù Peterson said. âÄúItâÄôs not University money.âÄù Perceptions of Lobbyists Former state Sen. and U.S. Rep. Tim Penny spent 22 years in office. Typically, he said, lobbyists from the University and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities systems were easy to work with. The formal process of drafting a lobbying agenda, which is ultimately approved by a governing body like the Board of Regents, lends credence to the recommendations for which the schools lobby. âÄúYou may agree or disagree with the universities about their priorities,âÄù Penny said. âÄúBut there is at least a process by which theyâÄôve established those priorities and itâÄôs a bit more objective than the process by some special interest groups.âÄù Those special interest groups tend to also have a narrower focus, often on a single issue. They apply political pressure on legislators and threaten bad reviews of lawmakers, Penny said. But the universitiesâÄô approach feels different. âÄúTo me, it enhances the credibility of the [higher education] lobbyists because they are not trying to apply political influence,âÄù he said. âÄúThey are trying to influence legislators based on public policy and priorities within the state university system or the University of Minnesota system.âÄù Riggs said lawmakersâÄô reception of higher education lobbyists is generally warm. âÄúEveryone loves us,âÄù she said. âÄúThatâÄôs the great thing about working for the University.âÄù Peterson agreed: âÄúI think the only time we rub elbows with anyone on the bad side is if weâÄôre in a committee and really competing with them.âÄù Read the first part of the series by clicking here.