Public universities get leg up on lobbying
By Debra Erdley
Published: Saturday, Nov. 23, 2013, 10:21 p.m.
Pennsylvania's public research universities pour hundreds of thousands of dollars a year into lobbying elected officials.
Between 2008 and 2012, Pitt, Penn State and Temple universities spent a combined $6.2 million in lobbying Harrisburg lawmakers and collected about $3 billion in subsidies. That's about $700 million more than the 14 universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, which enroll about an equal number of Pennsylvania residents.
Lobbyist disclosure forms filed by the three state-related universities note that about $950,000 during that five-year period paid for gifts or hospitality.
“This is just a snapshot of how the game is played. The problem for the public is that political access requires a private invitation,” said Eric Epstein, a Harrisburg-based government reform activist. “Lobbyists demand a return on their investment. Gifts, gratuities and trips aren't freebies and come with strings attached.”
It is difficult to know who is being wined and dined.
Pennsylvania does not require Pitt, Penn State and Temple to report travel and hospitality to an individual unless gifts exceed $650 in a year. So lawmakers who receive football tickets — in Penn State's case valued at a mere $69 each — rarely show up on reports.
A $50 expenditure in Texas and Washington triggers disclosure requirements.
Hospitality and gifts can buy access to influential lawmakers at critical moments, said Barry Kauffman, director of Common Cause of Pennsylvania, the self-styled citizens watchdog group.
“A lobbyist, to do his job, only needs to provide information. That's all they need to do: emails, letters, contacts — that's all legitimate. But when you get into gifts and hospitality, even lobbyists will tell you privately that, at a minimum, those expenditures buy preferred access,” said Kauffman, a lobbyist for Common Cause.
State-owned schools, which include California, Indiana and Slippery Rock universities, are considered part of state government. As such, those schools must comply with the state's Right to Know and Ethics acts. They do not lobby the state.
The Ethics Act requires state officials to file annual statements listing their financial holdings, debts and business interests. The Right to Know Law requires agencies and schools to produce records detailing their finances and contracts.
Pitt, Penn State and Temple are exempt from these requirements, despite accepting millions of dollars in tax money, critics complain.
The three schools, which counted nearly four out of every 10 state lawmakers among their sprawling alumni base as of 2011, have fought proposals to force them to comply with right-to-know and ethics laws. The universities argue that taxpayers provide only a fraction of their billion-dollar budgets.
Public records show Pitt, Penn State and Temple spent almost $2.7 million last year to lobby officials who oversee hundreds of millions of dollars in research grants, education subsidies and student grant and loan programs.
Of that, $1,112,000 went to federal lobbying and $1,571,935 went toward lobbying state lawmakers.
Monte Ward, president of the American League of Lobbyists, blamed a soft economy and the Obama administration's general disdain for lobbyists as causing an overall decline in lobbying in Washington.
Ohio State University economist Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, noted that the decline in Washington coincided with the end of earmarks — the discretionary grants that went to lawmakers' pet projects, including university research.
“Research lobbying was a very lucrative thing,” Vedder said.
Spokesmen for Pitt and Temple ramped up their Harrisburg efforts because lawmakers slashed their state subsidies dramatically in 2011. In 2012, Temple spent $706,494, the most of the three schools.
“Temple increased lobbying expenditures in 2012 to enhance our ability to communicate with the Corbett administration and General Assembly on behalf of the university,” spokesman Ray Betzner said.
Getting the message out
Pitt spokesman Ken Service said Pitt tries to keep lawmakers “informed about the many ways in which Pennsylvania's public research universities — and the University of Pittsburgh in particular — contribute to the quality of life and the economic vitality of the commonwealth.”
Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers said school lobbyists communicate with state and federal agencies to further its mission of teaching, research and service.
From 2008 to 2012, individual school spending on lobbying ranged from $221,011 to $706,494 a year. By contrast, the University of Michigan spends about $115,000 a year on lobbying.
State Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Centre County, whose district includes Penn State, has introduced legislation to make the universities comply with the ethics and right-to-know laws.
”I still see folks from Pitt, Penn State and Temple (in Harrisburg) the same as always. They've always been here talking to legislators, trying to make them understand how important the money they give them is to Pennsylvania's economy,” Conklin said, adding that the lobbyists don't visit him.
Spokesmen for Pitt and Penn State said much of the gifts, hospitality and travel expenses represent entertaining officials at home football games and the occasional meal at university events.
Penn State invites state and federal legislators to home football games, said Powers.
“And we closely follow state and federal laws and regulations in reporting these gifts and expenditures,” she said.
Under federal law, the schools are required to report quarterly the amount they spent on lobbying and the topic they hoped their activities would influence. But public universities and governmental entities are not required to report gifts and hospitality to lawmakers.
Craig Holman of the national public interest lobby Public Citizen said provisions requiring such reporting were stripped from a lobbying bill when it moved through Congress several years ago.
Debra Erdley is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7996 or email@example.com.
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