TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Lifting the lid on legislative lobbying largesse

Two recent news items reinforce the importance of keeping track of what colleges and universities are spending on lobbying at the state Capitol — and not just “how much,” but also “why.”

Item 1: Sometimes it’s a whole lot of money.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that the University of Pittsburgh ramped up its lobbying activity — spending $113,000 in the first three months of 2012 alone — in an attempt to fend off massive cuts in state aid proposed by Gov. Tom Corbett.

Item 2: Sometimes it isn’t legal.

The Boston Herald reports that Massachusetts community colleges came up with what they thought was a way to circumvent a 2010 state law banning the use of state money on hired-gun lobbyists: They formed a “trustees’ association” that contracts with a lobbyist. But because the lobbyist’s $51,000 fee comes from college dollars — including from student activity fees — the governor’s office believes the arrangement still violates the ban.

State legislatures typically end their yearly sessions in the late spring, almost all of them by June 1. The end of the session is a milestone that student reporters at public colleges and universities should circle on the calendar every year.

Because every good-sized college will have either an in-house lobbyist or an external contract lobbyist — or, as in the case of Massachusetts, will be represented by a collaborative association that lobbies — there almost invariably will be some type of end-of-session progress report to college administrators. A lobbyist’s progress report can be an enlightening source of story ideas. It will tell you not only which bills are believed to have the most significant impact, but what position the college took.

Using an end-of-the-session lobbyist’s report of this kind, journalists from The Reporter at Miami-Dade College learned of a significant change in their state’s open-records laws, Senate Bill 878, which will give the public greater access to portions of college employees’ personnel files that were formerly off-limits. Under the new law, the public may see the performance evaluations of non-academic employees such as police officers, and may obtain complaints filed by or against college employees once the outcome is resolved.

While state-level legislation will be the most directly impactful on a state college, don’t forget also to ask for records such as correspondence with, reports filed by, and bills submitted by the college’s Washington, D.C., lobbyists as well. As the Washington Post reported recently, the loss of “earmarked” federal spending is making universities work harder for their federal grants, and many (including Notre Dame and Duke) are staffing up in D.C. to work on executive-branch agencies as well as Congress.

Lobbying is rarely done in the open, but any updates that lobbyists send to college administrators should, at a state institution, be readily released in response to a public records request.