Pitt groups lobby to get funding back

By Lindsay Carroll

There’s a new aspect to education that’s become quite integral to universities like Pitt:… There’s a new aspect to education that’s become quite integral to universities like Pitt: lobbying.

Last month, three buses full of Pitt students, alumni and University administrators drove to the state capital to convince their Pennsylvania legislators to get Pitt more money after Gov. Ed Rendell placed a freeze on Pitt funding from the state ‘- essentially, a 6-percent funding gap that could lead to a tuition raise.

Pitt’s Governmental Relations office organized the March 17 trip and worked with Student Government Board to recruit students to lobby on Pitt’s behalf. It was the first time the two organizations collaborated on what they call ‘Pitt Day in Harrisburg.’

Nick Trainer, the SGB governmental relations committee chair, said about 17 students went on the trip and met with their representatives.

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He said the students who went learned a lot about the legislative process.

‘It probably gave most people an eye-opener,’ said Trainer.

Pitt has revamped its lobbying efforts since Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which will distribute hundreds of billions of dollars to different sectors in an effort to revive the economy.

Pitt officials hope that the stimulus money being distributed to states to alleviate budget cuts will cover the governor’s spending freeze on Pitt’s budget, which totals about $11 million, according to University news release in December.

President Barack Obama took a powerful stance against Washington lobbyists last year during his campaign.

On his campaign Web site, Obama told Americans that under the Bush administration, lobbyists wrote policies, caused wasteful spending and contributed to government secrecy.

His rhetoric resonated with many people — including college students — who wanted the comfort of ethics reform during the next presidency, with more monitoring of lobbying laws. On Jan. 21, Obama signed an executive order that included provisions to restrict lobbyists’ employment at the White House and prevent administration officials from accepting lobbyist gifts.

But many Pitt students may not realize they support lobbying simply by being a Pitt student. University administrators, SGB and independent student groups work to influence elected officials at the federal, state and local level.

Colleges and universities represent one of the most influential lobbying industries in Washington. The education industry is the sixth most influential sector that gives money to members of Congress, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Educators spent $36.5 billion giving money to members of Congress in 2008 ‘- 88 percent of which was given to Democrats, according to the group.

Pitt is a member of the Association of American Universities and the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities, two federal organizations of colleges and universities that work to lobby Congress. The AAU advocates on behalf of large research institutions, while the APLU advocates for state school systems.

Pitt often lobbies Congress for funding from the National Institute of Health and the National Science Foundation, which grant researchers funding for projects.

Jeanne Stoner, assistant vice chancellor for federal governmental relations, said Pitt has also lobbied against legislation that would restrict the use of ‘class B’ laboratory animals — animals that are not necessarily bred for research purposes. Pitt has also lobbied Congress in favor of legislation that would publish taxpayer-funded research projects from the National Institute of Health.

Charlie McLaughlin, the assistant director of Commonwealth Relations, said that on a daily basis he and other governmental relations employees have to monitor proposed legislation closely, using news wires.

Last year, Pitt’s governmental relations office spent $690,000 on lobbying expenses at the federal level — not including money paid to unaffiliated firms — according to expense reports found on the Senate’s lobbying disclosure database.

The $690,000 includes money that Pitt paid the Washington lobbying firms Blank Rome Government Relations ($160,000) and Cavarocchi Ruscio Dennis Associates ($130,000) in 2008, according to reports filed by those firms.

Pitt terminated its contracts with the companies.

She said she thinks the University is being careful about its expenditures because of the economy.

‘The climate for external lobbying is not what it had been,’ she said.

Paul Supowitz, vice chancellor of governmental relations, said that Pitt chooses the firms it hires to lobby based on reputation and integrity. He said it sets up a ‘standard consulting arrangement’ that complies with laws and restrictions.

He said the agreements include set prices, which Pitt pays in installments and reports every quarter, but the agreements aren’t based on whether the firm succeeds with advocating an issue.

‘There’s no way any of the outside representatives have guaranteed success on a certain issue,’ said Supowitz.

He said that the lobbying expenses Pitt declared include compensating the office’s employees for their time as well as travel expenses — but not campaign contributions. Because Pitt is a non-profit, state-related university that doesn’t have to pay taxes, it cannot engage in political activity.

‘We are lucky, in some ways, that we don’t have to get into that,’ said Supowitz. ‘We still get calls from people about fundraisers.’

The Center for Responsive Politics reported that in 2006, Pitt ranked 19th out of 20 schools that contributed money to members of Congress. But Supowitz said the numbers, if accurate, probably reflect money donated by individuals to campaigns, not by the University.

He said that because all individuals donating to campaigns must list their employer, the organization may consider donations made by University employees as University donations.

Stoner said she felt that Pitt’s best way of lobbying is through advocating research and knowledge.

‘We feel our best medium of exchange is not currency,’ she said.

McLaughlin agreed.

‘This is a very, very easy place to advocate for,’ he said.

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