TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: The Price of Pull — learning to navigate lobbyist spending disclosures

Right up there with utilities, insurance companies and pharmaceutical manufacturers, some of the biggest spenders on lobbying state legislatures are colleges and universities.

For public institutions, the reasons are pretty obvious. The average public university receives about half of its operating budget from state appropriations. Those monumental dorms, gyms and libraries that seem constantly to be under construction often are funded through state-issued bonds.

For private institutions, which — at least in name — are not state-supported, the reasons are not as readily apparent, which means inquiring minds should want to know: What exactly are private colleges trying to get legislators to do, or not do?

Fortunately, most states (and the federal government) require some transparency as to who’s registered to lobby on behalf of which organization. Many go further and require lobbyists to report what they spent entertaining lawmakers, and what bill(s) they were discussing during that expense-paid supper.

This is one instance in which reporters at private colleges are in luck. Since private industries also must disclose who’s lobbying for them, and sometimes what they spend, that includes private colleges and the trade associations that represent them.

For example, the organization that represents private colleges in Virginia spent nearly $80,000 on lobbying during the last legislative session, putting it among the top 40 spenders in Richmond (ahead of the trade associations for hospitals, coal miners and other traditional heavy hitters), according to figures compiled by the nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project.

Don’t overlook Washington, D.C., either. The nonprofit watchdog group Center for Responsive Politics maintains a searchable database of disclosure reports showing who’s spending what to lobby Congress. If you have the political geek gene and an investigator’s instincts, pull up a comfortable chair and pack a snack, because searching the database can be addictive.

Among the gems that a little snooping will uncover — hint, put the word “college” or “university” into the search box for the lobbying client’s name, and watch the 600-plus results spill out — is that the powerhouse D.C. lobbying firm Patton Boggs LLP, home to such political luminaries as former senators Trent Lott and John Breaux, made more than $1.8 million last year lobbying for universities and their affiliates. Among the biggest clients: Wake Forest University and Clemson University.

This may seem like quite a lot of money, but lobbying can be an investment that pays dividends. Colleges and universities were the beneficiaries of $2 billion in earmarked appropriations in the 2010 federal budget, which is nearly one-eighth of all earmarked funds. As one political scientist told The Minnesota Daily, “No one gets an earmark unless they lobby for it.”

If you detect that your university is spending an unusual amount on its state or federal lobbyists, or has recently hired a high-priced contract firm to supplement the lobbying efforts of in-house university employees, it’s time to start asking why. The answer may be innocent — it may be that the university is contending for a plum research facility, or opposing a hurtful change in financial-aid laws — but it almost certainly will be newsworthy.