State Governments, Public Universities Pay to Play
By Eric Kelderman, Staff Writer
State and local governments and public universities spent more than a half-billion dollars over the past six years to push their interests in Congress, the White House and more than 200 federal agencies, according to a new survey of federal lobbying data.
The biggest share of spending was done by roughly 1,400 local governments, which together doled out more than $357 million to fund lobbying efforts largely aimed at capturing a bigger slice of the federal budget, said a report released April 7 by the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity, a lobbying and campaign finance watchdog organization. Federal lobbying disclosure forms also showed 371 public colleges and universities spent more than $138 million to hire private lobbying firms in Washington, D.C., from 1998 to mid-2004, while the 50 state and six territorial governments spent at least $64 million, according to the center's figures.
Pennsylvania led state spending on lobbying, hiring nine separate firms for a total $4.55 million over the six years. Other states in the top 10 for lobbying spending were Illinois ($4 million), New York ($3.19 million), Alabama ($1.99 million), Nevada ($1.86 million), Indiana ($1.77 million), New Jersey ($1.6 million), California ($1.57 million), Alaska ($1.44 million) and Florida ($1.27 million).
Public dollars spent on lobbying still are a fraction of total dollars spent by industry, special interest groups and others to buy influence in Washington. The center reported that $13 billion was paid to Washington lobbyists from all sources since 1998, more than twice the total of private contributions to federal candidates.
Even so, public colleges and universities?nearly tripled their lobbying spending from $11.7 million in 1998 to nearly $31 million in 2003. State and local government spending on influence peddling has more than doubled from $44.7 million in 1998 to $95.2 million in 2003, the report said.
"States, local governments, even school boards spend millions of taxpayer dollars competing to become favorites of the federal decision makers," said Roberta Baskin, executive director of the center. "The way this game is played, no one can afford not to play," she said.
Aron Pilhofer, a researcher at the center, said he was surprised that states would need to buy outside help to influence federal lawmakers.
"I think the story here is that it's happening at all," he said. "The idea that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is spending anything -- much less $4.5 million -- to lobby Congress is odd and interesting. I mean, isn't that why we have Congress?" Pilhofer said.
Most public money is being spent to get a bigger piece of the roughly $420 billion that the federal government transfers to state and local governments each year. The most common issue listed on the disclosure forms was budget and appropriations, the center found.
Travis Reindl, director of state policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said colleges and universities also use high-priced lobbying firms to go after lucrative pet projects that congressmen and senators slip into the budget to benefit their home districts. Policy and regulatory issues involving the federal government are not handled by lobbyists, but by the nonprofit associations and the staffs that many major universities employ in D.C., he said.
The 10 universities that spent the most on federal lobbying over the six-year period were the State University of New York ($5.66 million), University of Massachusetts ($4.83 million), University of California ($4.23 million), University of Colorado ($3.82 million), Rutgers University ($3.32 million), University of Missouri System ($3.09 million), California State University ($2.72 million), University of Texas System ($2.47 million), University of Connecticut ($2.18 million) and Texas Tech University ($2.12 million).
While the overall amount of public money for lobbying has increased since 1998, some states are paring back.
Illinois, which has the second highest state total since 1998, cut its lobbying expenditures from $1.08 million in 2002 to $340,000 in 2003, according to the center's figures. The state has an influential congressional delegation, including Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Senate Minority Whip Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), explained Gerardo Cardenas, a spokesman for Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D).
Georgia, Hawaii, Mississippi, Missouri, Oklahoma and Washington are among the states that also have scaled back their Washington lobbying efforts, according to the center's searchable database.
The Center on Public Integrity receives some of its funding from the Pew Charitable Trusts, which also funds Stateline.org.