Facing earmark ban, budget cuts, UConn rethinks lobbying plans

WASHINGTON–University of Connecticut officials are retooling their Washington lobbying strategy, drafting a new playbook that’s more defense than offense.

Until recently, the university has focused on snagging earmarks, along with building support for increased research funding. But now, earmarks are banned. And other staple programs that UConn and similar educational institutions have relied on–from Pell Grants for students to National Institutes of Health funds for researchers–are under the budgetary microscope.

Michael Kirk, UConn’s spokesman, said the school’s current focus in Washington has turned to protecting existing federal programs, such as an initiative aimed at helping gifted students excel in college and another one that funds research on infrastructure security.

“The university receives approximately $233 million in federal funding each year, and needs to protect this revenue source, particularly at a time when many federal programs are being considered for deep cuts or elimination this year,” Kirk said.

Kirk pointed to the gifted students program, for example, which channels $2 million a year to UConn’s National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented. He said the initiative has “repeatedly been targeted for elimination,” and officials are worried about its fate this year.

The UConn Center develops empirically-based curricula for high-achieving students, giving school districts new tools and educational content for their best students. And losing that funding, Kirk said, would kill the only federal program that is specifically dedicated to gifted students.

When it comes to more proactive lobbying, the ban on earmarks is limiting.  And it could even prompt the school to review its contract with a powerful Washington lobbying firm, Van Scoyoc Associates, which specializes in earmarks.

In 1998, when UConn officials first hired the D.C. firm to press its case before Congress, they chose Van Scoyoc in part because its lobbyists had an insiders’ understanding of the congressional process and a particular savvy when it came to scouting out funding opportunities for universities.

Among its clients, Van Scoyoc counts more than two dozen educational institutions, including the Universities of Maryland, Nebraska and Oklahoma. And several of its lobbyists are former House or Senate appropriations committee staffers, who know how to tuck earmarks into the annual federal spending bills.

UConn has paid Van Scoyoc about $2 million over the last decade in lobbying fees. And the school has reaped millions of dollars in earmarks in that time. Those specially-tagged funding provisions, which allow lawmakers to direct federal money to their home states for specific projects, have long been a major source of support for UConn and other universities.

In 2009, for example, UConn got about $6 million in earmarks, including $750,000 to study behavioral health problems and $350,000 for its National Undersea Research Program, according to a review of data compiled by the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense. In fiscal year 2010, the university won $14.2 million in earmarks.

Last year, as the 2011 spending bills were moving through Congress, UConn was working to snap up more than $10 million in earmarks before the budget process collapsed in stalemate. When lawmakers finally agreed to a fiscal year 2011 budget earlier this month, there were no earmarks in it–for UConn or any other institution.

How much of UConn’s previous earmark success can be attributed to Van Scoyoc–rather than to the university’s in-house lobbying team and the efforts of Connecticut lawmakers–is not clear. Earmarks have been criticized as pork barrel spending, based more on political muscle than merit. And it’s often the political clout of a state’s congressional delegation, rather than the skills of any lobbying team, that has mattered most in that process.

Kevin F. Kelly, a top lobbyist at the firm who works on UConn’s account, did not return a call for comment.

UConn’s Kirk said the earmarks that Van Scoyoc has helped win “have been extremely valuable to the university and the state.” He said that funding has supported research on everything from fuel cells to nanotechnology, and the earmarks have often acted as seed money that UConn has leveraged into additional private investment.

Now that earmarks are forbidden and the focus in Congress is more on cutting then spending, Kirk said UConn will be evaluating “the changing congressional environment.” He said school officials will be reviewing what, if any, adjustments it needs to make in its government relations approach. UConn’s contract runs through the fall, he said, so “we’ll see how it goes between now and then.”

In the meantime, though, Kirk said the university’s federal agenda-and Van Scoyoc’s lobbying assignment–is much broader than earmarks.

“Van Scoyoc’s work has always been about helping UConn build capacity” in areas like biomedical and health research, agriculture, energy technologies, and marine science, he said, which is critical to ensuring UConn remains a top research and educational institution.

“Earmarks have been one means to achieving this capacity,” Kirk said. “Just because there is a hiatus on earmarks does not mean that there is a hiatus on the need to build capacity.” He noted that the federal government’s research and development budget is about $143 billion, and said: “UConn needs to be working aggressively to keep capturing as much of this pool as is possible.”

To be sure, in its 1st quarter lobbying report for UConn, Van Scoyoc listed a bevy of issues it’s working on for the university, nearly all of them related to federal spending. There’s “technology incubator” funding in the financial services appropriations bill; science research money in the Homeland Security spending bill; and research and development provisions in the Department of Defense bill. UConn’s in-house lobbying report lists the same items.

Kirk said UConn is also looking for new grant opportunities in areas where researchers have expertise, but also needs to protect existing ones. For example, UConn and Van Scoyoc both reported lobbying lawmakers to reauthorize a $76.7 million program that provides grants for so-called “University Transportation Centers.”

The program was first authorized in the 2005 federal highway bill, with some funds doled out through grants and others through a special provision inserted in the authorization bill that named UConn and other institutions as recipients. Although such special language is now banned in the federal spending bills, it’s unclear whether Congress will follow that prohibition with authorization bills, which set policy and guide later spending decisions.

UConn’s Center for Transportation and Livable Systems, headed by a professor in the school’s engineering department, currently gets about $500,000 a year through that program. And when the highway bill comes up for reauthorization this year, Kirk said, UConn will be working to make sure that provision is not nixed.