U lobbyists: influence for hire

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Donna Peterson was plucked from her seat in the Minnesota Senate in 1990 to serve as the associate vice president of the University of Minnesota’s Government and Community Relations, the department that handles lobbying efforts.

Peterson spends her time at the State Capitol, “telling a story,” she says, of the University’s prestige, and its ability — when given the right amount of funding — to fulfill the University’s mission and serve the people of Minnesota.

MN DAILY EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a two-part series looking at higher education lobbying. Today’s looks at University-funded lobbying efforts. Read the first part of the series by clicking here.

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. That’s 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 doesn’t have to disclose state lobbying costs.

The Life of a Lobbyist

A big part of a higher education lobbyist’s 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.

“There’s more focus on the research side of the University and how might that drive the economy of the state,” Peterson said.

Research funding is also a dominant issue on the federal level, said federal relations Director Channing Riggs who lobbies Minnesota’s congressional delegation.

“I meet people all the time that say, ‘Why would the University have a lobbyist?’ ” she said. “We need to make sure that the 10 members of Congress from Minnesota know how important [issues] are to us, and to the state.”

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 University’s lobbyists don’t just bring information to legislators. They bring things back to campus, too, which helps shape the priorities set by administrators for inside the University.

“It’s taking information out, but it’s taking information back in as well,” Peterson said.

The University’s legislative agenda is laid out in advance by the administration and Board of Regents. For example, this year’s 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 she’ll 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, they’ll connect a University expert with that lawmaker.

“We’re not lobbying them directly, but in a way we are because we’re showing them what we do, and helping them understand what happens here and what research is here,” Peterson said.

Riggs’ plan for work with members of Congress is similar to Peterson’s; she’ll spend time on policymakers’ “home turf” when she can, but she travels to Capitol Hill about 12 times a year, mostly during the session.

“In Washington, there are five-minute meetings with someone standing in the hallway,” she said. “You meet with someone in their district office, they’ll sit with you for a half-hour to talk about an issue.”

New Restraints

Those trips to Washington, D.C., and Riggs’ 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.

“Until January we didn’t have to do any of this, so now we’re just trying to figure this out,” she said. “Like anything that’s new, it takes setting up some systems, but it seems to be easier to do.”

The University has opted, under attorney advisement, to interpret the somewhat “ambiguous” reporting law as a call for the most comprehensive filings, the two lobbyists said.

“I report 100 percent of my time,” Riggs said. “Some of my colleagues from other schools don’t.”

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 year’s 200-perso n event fell under the umbrella of reportable expenditures, Riggs said.

“It’s the first time we’ve had to report things like this,” she added. “We decided we needed to report it.”

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.

“She’s free to write personal checks to whomever she would like to as a citizen,” Peterson said. “It’s not University money.”

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.

“You may agree or disagree with the universities about their priorities,” Penny said. “But there is at least a process by which they’ve established those priorities and it’s a bit more objective than the process by some special interest groups.”

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 universities’ approach feels different.

“To me, it enhances the credibility of the [higher education] lobbyists because they are not trying to apply political influence,” he said. “They are trying to influence legislators based on public policy and priorities within the state university system or the University of Minnesota system.”

Riggs said lawmakers’ reception of higher education lobbyists is generally warm.

“Everyone loves us,” she said. “That’s the great thing about working for the University.”

Peterson agreed: “I think the only time we rub elbows with anyone on the bad side is if we’re in a committee and really competing with them.”