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Lawmaker questions universities' lobbying expenses

March 07, 2002
By: Matt Williams
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - Public colleges and universities are spending more than $800,000 every year lobbying Missouri lawmakers for more funding, according to state records.

At at time when higher education is facing appropriation cuts and pondering tuition increases, some lawmakers say those lobbying expenses are a bit excessive.

According to the survey performed by Senate researchers, state public colleges and universities employ at least 16 "legislative liaisons," including seven contract lobbyists at an expense of $831,000 in this fiscal year. The figure does not include colleges that did not respond to the survey.

The University of Missouri System employs three full-time lobbyists at a cost of $296,000, according to the survey.

Sen. Larry Rohrbach, R-California, questioned the use of contracting with private lobbyists to represent their institutions. Staff of the Senate Appropriations Committee identified seven private lobbyists who had been hired by public universities -- none were identified as hired by the University of Missouri.

Many of those are former representatives who earn six-figure salaries, Rohrbach said.

"These are folks who have no particular expertise in higher education," he said. "Their expertise is schmoozing with us."

Directing UM's lobbying efforts is Jim Snider, who has served as the university's lobbyist since 1985. In addition to Snider, Marty Oetting serves as a liaison for the Columbia campus and Elizabeth Vanuum for the St. Louis campus.

In previous years, the university also has contracted with other lobbyists to assist Snider and work on special projects -- although neither were included in the Senate staff report.

Last year, the university paid $35,000 to lobbyist Harry Gallagher to push for state funding for a new basketball arena at MU. This legislative session, Snider enlisted the help of former state Rep. Bob Fowler at a cost of $30,000. Snider said Fowler may not be rehired next year if the state further cuts the university's budget.

In addition, the university spent at least $33,000 in gifts, meals and MU athletic tickets for lawmakers last year, according to reports filed with the Missouri Ethics Commission.

In 2001, Snider and Oetting disclosed they spent more than $15,000 in meals for lawmakers, mostly food served to legislative committees deliberating on issues important to the university, a common practice among lobbyists in the Capitol.

They also gave nearly $14,000 in MU football and basketball tickets, including $332 to Gov. Bob Holden's staff and $197 to Mexico Rep. Ted Farnen.

Snider said the university spends relatively little compared to private lobbying groups, and that the meals and tickets are an opportunity for lawmakers to learn more about how the university works.

The focus of this year's lobbying effort is to lessen any budget cuts, Snider said. However, he said the situation is dire enough that no amount of lobbying would stop cuts.

"I don't think numerous lobbyists would do us any good," he said.

Rohrbach has asked the Higher Education Department to take a closer look at schools' lobbying expenses. He said it's clear that the schools' efforts have crossed the line from providing information to grubbing for money.

"Personally, I don't think it's ethical. I don't even think they think it's ethical," he said."They're just doing it to get more cash."

UM spokesman Joe Moore denied that the university was doing anything improper by hiring lobbyists.

"I'm not aware of the university doing anything improper under the laws of the state," Moore said. "We're certainly working very hard this year more than any other year in history to make sure that budget cuts do not cripple our ability to carry out the vital mission of serving the state."

Columbia Rep. Chuck Graham, who chairs the House committee that handles higher education funding, said university lobbyists are mainly there to answer questions on complicated subjects. He says it is no different than any other state agency that hires liaisons.

"We find it to be very helpful to have someone like Jim Snider that's got two decades of experience here," Graham said.