October 22, 2014

Higher Education: Lobbyists

The Lobbyists: Confronting Cutbacks

Colleges spend millions on lobbyists to watch out for their individual interests in the Legislature.

Amy Keller | 7/5/2011

Florida's colleges and universities endured a grueling 2011 legislative session, unsuccessfully attempting to persuade Florida lawmakers to spare higher education from funding cuts amid a $3.8-billion budget shortfall.

Ultimately, the Legislature slashed state university funding by about 4%, assuming additionally that all schools will increase tuition by 15%. Lawmakers also cut the popular Bright Futures scholarship program by 20% and suspended the state's dollar-for-dollar matching gift program for large private donations to universities.

"It was a really tough year across the board ... a very, very tough year from the budgetary standpoint," says Mark Walsh, who lobbies on behalf of the University of South Florida.

Private institutions shared the pain. Lawmakers reduced funding for the Florida Resident Access Grant, a grant awarded to students who attend private colleges and universities in Florida, from $2,425 per student to $2,149. "We were at $3,000 per student four short years ago," says Ed Moore, president of the Independent Colleges & Universities of Florida, which lobbies for Florida's 29 private, not-for-profit schools.

Florida's private historically black colleges and universities also took a hit: Their $8.7-million appropriation is 7% less than what they received last year and 27% less than the $12.1 million appropriated in 2006-07 and 2007-08.

? Mark Walsh

Government relations director, University of South Florida

Mark Walsh
Mark Walsh? [Photo: Mark Wemple]

Smoke and mirrors: Two years ago, Walsh had to dispel a rumor that University of South Florida President Judy Genshaft had spent $2 million on a fancy yacht. The boat was actually a 15-year-old marine research vessel that USF had purchased to replace a 40-year-old vessel. Walsh says that certain "legislative personnel" wanted lawmakers to think otherwise to divert funding to their preferred project. "Misinformation and disinformation can be powerful — particularly when the timeframes are short," says Walsh.

Teamwork: "Sometimes our outside supporters have trouble seeing us all succeed because that football rivalry penetrates the legislative rivalry as well — but most of that is not driven internally by the universities or their lobbyists," says Walsh. "This year ... we're working together more than we're working apart."

? Kathleen Daly

Assistant vice president for governmental relations, Florida State University

Challenges: Changes to the state employee pension system — workers will have to contribute 3% of their salary to their retirement plan — will hurt universities when it comes to recruiting new faculty.

Kathleen Daly
Kathleen Daly? [Photo:Ray Stanyard]
Local advantage: "Our folks around here on our campus are called upon more to testify to give expert testimony" because of FSU's proximity to the Capitol.

Unified strength: Representatives of the state universities "gather regularly during session, and we share our intelligence and we strategize together," says Daly.

Insider tip: "Don't burn bridges because your adversary one day may be your ally the next. Not may be — will be. That's the way this process works."

? Yolanda Jackson

Attorney, Becker & Poliakoff

Represents: Bethune-Cookman (Daytona Beach); Edward Waters (Jacksonville); Florida Memorial University (Miami)

Challenges: Historically black schools traditionally are associated with Democratic legislators but received their greatest allocation — more than $12 million — under Republican Govs. Jeb Bush and Charlie Crist. Gov. Rick Scott's budget proposal eliminated funding for all but one black Florida university, but the Legislature restored the appropriations.

Yolanda Jackson
Yolanda Jackson? [Photo: Daniel Portnoy]
Rewards: "Eighty percent of the students who attend HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) come from household incomes of less than $30,000 a year," Jackson says. "The majority are the first-time attendees of college in their families."

No. 1 rule of lobbying: "Tell the truth and tell both sides of the story. Sometimes your side is not necessarily the best side. Legislators and your clients appreciate you telling it to them straight," she says.

? Jane Adams

Vice president of university relations, University of Florida

Jane Adams
Jane Adams meets with state Sen. Steve Oelrich.? [Photo: Eric Zamora/UF]
Getting creative: With funds tight, Adams has focused on getting the Legislature to allow the school to be more flexible with the money it has. This past session, for instance, the Legislature agreed to allow UF to offer students a spring/summer academic year, with students able to use Bright Futures scholarships for the summer session. Allowing students to bypass the crowded fall semester, Adams says, will create access for an additional 2,000 students by 2013.

The "E" word: "Since earmarks have dried up," she says, "we're not looking to Congress so much for that sort of federal funding," but federal contracts and grants continue to fuel university research. UF receives more than $600 million annually for research.

Victories: The schools defeated a House bill that would have deregulated athletic agents, potentially opening the door to more NCAA violations.

? Student Reps

University officials aren't the only ones playing the higher-ed lobbying game. At least three university student government associations have hired contract lobbyists in Tallahassee: The University of Central Florida Student Government Association pays GrayRobinson $40,000 for lobbying services; the University of Florida Student Government Association has Capital City Consulting on a $25,000 retainer; and the Florida State University Student Government Association pays Pittman Law Group $60,000.

Sean Pittman
Sean Pittman? [Photo: Pittman Law Group]
"It's much different than 20 years ago when 10 students just came up from a university trying to get in to see their local representative or local senator. Now they have people who work in the process every day," says Sean Pittman, who has assisted the FSU student government association on issues from tuition increases to student representation on the Florida Board of Governors.

Tags: Education

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