SIU president: Lobbyists crucial to protect school interests

News-DemocratSeptember 1, 2013 

Southern Illinois University has spent more than $2 million on lobbyists since 2000, an expense the university president says is essential and worthwhile.

The university system, including the Carbondale campus, Edwardsville campus, dental school and medical school, has spent $2.17 million on lobbyists since 2000, according to figures obtained by the News-Democrat under a Freedom of Information Act request.

SIU President Glenn Poshard, himself a former state senator and U.S. congressman, said SIU needs lobbyists to keep track of legislation and to push for funding.

"I know it's probably hard for the public to understand, but it's like anything else: We have to keep the legislature alerted to the bills that are passing through, and how they affect us. If we don't do that, and we miss a very important bill that adversely affects our university, I'm to blame for that," Poshard said.

He said lawmakers whose districts are in Southern Illinois do want to help the university, but higher education isn't always top-of-mind for legislators.

"Of course they care about and try to look out for their districts, but they've got transportation issues, health issues, all kinds of issues that they have to stay abreast of," Poshard said. "They don't just look out for the welfare of one entity in their districts -- they have a hundred entities they have to care about."

He added, "If we're not totally abreast of what's going on with, say, the pension legislation, then we could be completely selling our people down the tubes if we allow a piece of legislation that's going to directly affect our retirees."

SIU's lobbying firm in recent years has been Fletcher, O'Brien, Kasper & Nottage PC. The university system employs the outside lobbying firm even though SIU has an Office of Governmental and Public Affairs located in Springfield. Employees at the Springfield office include an executive director for governmental and public affairs, whose job includes serving as the "official liaison between members of the SIU community and our local, state and federal elected officials."

Poshard said that employee is not a lobbyist and has a wide range of duties, including government relations and coordinating with the lobbyists.

"We're nearly a $900 million-a-year enterprise. A great majority of our funds come from both the state and federal government. Between those two entities, they put forward thousands of bills every year, many of which have an effect on higher education," Poshard said.

He added that on many bills, the university gives testimony at the committee level.

"We're certainly not at liberty to be in Springfield every day, to contact 40 or 50 legislators, or a committee that might be hearing a bill at any given time," he said.

Poshard said SIU's lobbyists are responsible for securing millions of dollars in funding. For example, he said they secured more than $1 million for cancer research and managed to reinstate the $1 million-a-year funding for the corn-to-ethanol research center in Edwardsville, which had been cut from the governor's budget.

"The millions of dollars that they help us get in new funds, or get reinstated, pay big dividends for the university," he said.

Poshard noted that he's worked to lower SIU's lobbying expenses. The university system was spending more than $190,000 per year on lobbying from 2002 to 2006.

The expenditure was $110,000 in 2011, and $90,000 in 2012.

The News-Democrat reported a week ago that local units of government based in the metro-eat have spent more than $2.7 million since 2002 lobbying other levels of government. That total does not include the expenditures of the SIU system.

Some government watchdogs question the need for government to lobby government. But some educators say it's important for them to stay on top of legislation and fight for funding.

Southwestern Illinois College, based in Belleville, has spent a total of $390,000 on lobbyists since February 2006. SWIC's lobbyist the entire time has been the Belleville law firm of Becker, Paulson, Hoerner & Thompson PC.

SWIC continues to employ a lobbyist even though the college's president, Georgia Costello, has political connections of her own. She is the wife of a former congressman, Jerry Costello, and the mother of a state representative, Jerry Costello II. Another son, John P. Costello, is a lobbyist, but does not represent SWIC.

SWIC spokesman Mike Fleming said: "As is their elected charge, state legislators in our community college district routinely keep us apprised of top-down legislative activities pertinent to post-secondary education, and they frequently and voluntarily champion grant and capital requests for all publicly funded entities for the betterment of their region. Our complementary governmental relations activities serve to enhance that direct legislative support by providing our elected officials with bottom-up, grassroots data and other information legislators find useful in their decision-making."

Madison County Regional Superintendent of Schools Bob Daiber also employs a lobbyist, even though state records show that no other individual regional superintendents of school in Illinois have lobbyists.

Steve Davis, a Democrat and former state representative, has earned a total of $120,000 representing Daiber's office since 2005.

Daiber, also a Democrat, said his office has "spent a whopping $12,000 a year to have a lobbyist that helps us secure $2 million, to make sure that we are in budget on particular programs, and makes sure that all of our school districts are receiving their fair share of funding. The legislation that's passed directly affects their categorical grants and state aid."

Daiber added, "If this individual hadn't been there, and worked on this issue, general state aid would have been cut from 89 percent to 82 percent. Our school districts would have lost millions of dollars in this county."

No other individual regional superintendents of schools have lobbyists, according to state records, but there is a group of regional superintendents -- the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents -- which employs a lobbyist. Daiber is the president of that group.

Daiber said there are various education consortiums, similar to regional superintendents of schools, which also have lobbyists.

Other regional superintendents don't have lobbyists because "I'm just maybe more organized than everybody else, and I'm very pro-active. We submit legislation," Daiber said.

For example, Daiber said, the proposal to allow the use of life-safety funds for operations and maintenance came from his office.

"This individual keeps me informed on a day-to-day basis when the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee meets," Daiber said. "The issues that we have here, with the size of our school districts in this region, when it's spring session, the impact of legislation on this region, every year, is immense, and the number of days that I personally spend in Springfield, and have spent the last three years, is very time-consuming. This is a very economical way for me to deal with the issues without getting other staff directly involved."

Contact reporter Brian Brueggemann at bbrueggemann@bnd.com or 618-239-2511.

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