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Lobbyists push to give OSU pull

Imagine Ohio State and the University of Michigan working together on everything from budget appropriation projects to football issues. Activists from each school fighting for more funding and grants for Big Ten schools one day and joining forces to keep the BCS bowl system in place the next.

Welcome to the sometimes puzzling, frequently hidden and often expensive world of lobbying.

OSU has spent about $1 million over the last three years on lobbying efforts. In 2008, OSU spent $514,000 for lobbying purposes. This encompasses salaries divided by the percentage of time spent lobbying, rent for the Washington, D.C. office, travel and office resources, among other things. In 2009, the number was reduced to just more than $262,000 and in 2010 it dropped again, to $220,000.

“Ohio State is the biggest, most complex, most vibrant university in America,” said President E. Gordon Gee in an email to The Lantern. “We are an organization with a $4.8 billion annual budget and with strong partnerships across the public and private sectors. We apply the full breadth of our abilities in pursuit of our mission as a land-grant university and in furtherance of our status as a research institution of global significance.”

Dave Levinthal, editor of the Center for Responsive Politics’ website Open Secrets, put those numbers into perspective.

“If you look at OSU, they were certainly very active in 2008. Although they dipped down quite a bit in 2009 and then again in 2010, the school is still spending much more than most universities do,” Levinthal said. “Anytime you’re up in the six-figure range, you’re spending a pretty sizeable amount for a single university organization.”

Richard Stoddard, associate vice president for government affairs at OSU, said he spent the majority of his time direct lobbying in Washington, which helped to account for the higher numbers in 2008.

“If not a full time, a large percentage of my time was spent direct lobbying. With the addition of the (government affairs) office, and I have other responsibilities,” Stoddard said. “So fewer trips to D.C., less of my time and less of my salary. It’s no less effort; I think it’s just less time.”

Despite what Levinthal referred to as a “rotten economy over the last two years,” the education industry spent $98.5 million on federal level lobbying efforts in 2010, down just $4 million from 2008. The total amount spent on lobbying in the U.S. increased from 2008 to 2010.

Although there are the occasional lobbyists that practice unethical tactics, lobbying is often a legitimate profession and an integral part of the democratic process.

“The role of the lobbyist or the government affairs person, one is to identify the issues coming up that are important to campus,” Stoddard said. “And then in the case of funding, the importance is to make sure that those pots of money, which our faculty competes for funding from because most of that is competitive awards, have sufficient funds in them to compete.”

Lobbyists for OSU work with a number of individuals from various parts of campus, from Gee’s office to students.

“We have a remarkable story to tell. Quite naturally, we are apt to tell it to many audiences, including elected officials,” Gee said.

The lobbyists act as a mouthpiece for the university, fighting for legislation that will benefit the university and pushing to prevent detrimental legislation from passing.

“These lobbying efforts can help a university when it comes to convincing lawmakers to help you, to assist you, to grease the wheels of politics in your favor,” Levinthal said.

Stacia Rastauskas, assistant vice president of federal relations at OSU, said the lobbyists have to pick their battles and determine which requests are most beneficial to the university.

“We try to encourage faculty and students to send us the bills that have priority or that impact the university in some way, shape or form,” Rastauskas said. “Now, do we lobby on everything that comes across our desk? No. We have to figure out what makes the biggest impact.”

Stoddard agreed and said it’s often in the hands of the lobbyist to decide which acts of legislation will receive more attention.

“We have to make a determination then that you can’t be for everything sometimes, and you have to understand where your priorities are,” Stoddard said. “But it’s really set by the university agenda I guess.”

A large portion of the university’s lobbying efforts focuses on student financial aid and funding, which in turn helps to increase opportunities for students and professors.

One of the university’s more recent successes occurred in late 2010. A competitive grant program created by the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 made it possible for the Health Resources and Services Administration to award the OSU Medical Center with a $100 million grant.

“I went to the members of the Ohio delegation and said ‘We are applying for this; we think we have a really competitive proposal with the expansion of our medical center. Would you please write a letter of support?'” Rastauskas said. “And in October 2010, a month before the election, we got a bipartisan letter from both members of the House and our two senators at the time, Sen. (Sherrod) Brown (D) and Sen. (George) Voinovich (R).”

The funding will be used to support ProjectONE, a $1 billion project which includes the expansion of the OSU Medical Center. Last week, OSU’s Board of Trustees approved a release of about $111 million for the project.

“It’s a once in a lifetime thing where a program evolves, and legislation some people believe is targeted at one particular institution, it becomes a competitive program,” Stoddard said. “Making that happen, allowing that to happen, putting people in the position where they can compete for dollars, that’s our role really.”

There’s more to lobbying than the bills that are centered on funding. In 2009, Rep. Joe Barton (R) from Texas sponsored the College Football Playoff Act of 2009.

It’s well documented that Gee has been against imposing a college football playoff system, so in this case it was up to the lobbyists to play defense.

“This is something we do kind of in partnership with the Big Ten Conference,” Stoddard said. “The conference is a member of the Bowl Championship Series. There have been several attempts to legislate a different kind of championship playoff.

“We spend a lot of good time in Washington explaining why it isn’t really a federal issue. It really is a defense of the bowl system.”

Levinthal said universities are concerned with plenty more than just education.

“Universities will lobby on anything that could in any way, shape or form affect their campus, their university climate, their business interests, student life and the interests of the administration and faculty,” Levinthal said.

Universities that represent higher education will often work together on various legislative issues, including schools in the Big Ten. On Capitol Hill, schools such as OSU and Michigan are constantly working together.

“We’re always working with our colleagues from other universities, and we work very closely as a conference,” said Cindy Bank, assistant director of Michigan’s D.C. office. “We have a great group of lobbyists. We love each other.”

Rastauskas agreed.

“If Michigan and Ohio State can agree that a piece of legislation like the Patent Reform Bill, or an appropriations bill is good for both campuses, how could you not support it?” Rastauskas said. “Federal legislation I think is the one place where we agree more than we disagree.”

Over the last three years, Michigan has spent just more than $1.6 million in lobbying efforts.

“Basically our offices are very reactive to what Congress and the administration is doing,” Bank said. “There’s no normal amount to spend, or way for us to even foresee what each year will be.”

students make the trip out to Capitol Hill, too.

“We were in D.C. with a group of students recently, and they were much more effective than we are talking about Pell Grants,” Stoddard said. “Nine of the 15 had Pell Grants themselves. So they were able to explain what it means, why they need a Pell Grant, and what it means to their education. They were the real-life embodiment.”

As the battle over the 2011 federal budget rages on in Washington, proposed cuts to the Federal Pell Grant Program has a number of students and university officials in a state of panic.

“A considerable number of our students rely on Pell Grants and other federal measures to make education affordable,” Gee said. “In Washington, my colleagues and I speak to the tremendous significance of these programs to our current and future students.”

Gee said lobbying on behalf of the university isn’t just a right, but a responsibility.

“Sharing information about the work our faculty and staff do, about the needs of our current and future students, about the tools that help us serve this state and nation, is more than good conversation; it is our duty,” Gee said. “Ohio State is in the progress business. There is no reason we should hesitate to make that known.”

Last year, Stoddard earned $153,248. Carlson was paid $152,250. Rastauskas made $118,692.

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