Connecticut’s colleges curtail their lobbying of Washington

Washington — With federal money drying up, Connecticut’s colleges are rethinking the value of a Washington lobbyist.

The Connecticut State University system hired the Washington lobbying firm McAllister & Quinn, paying it more than $100,000 last year to seek federal funding for a robotics project at Central Connecticut State University. The university also wanted the firm to secure millions of federal dollars for transportation projects at the system’s four schools.

But CSU’s relationship with its hired gun in Washington may soon end.

“If there are no earmarks and less grant money in Washington, does it make sense to have a lobbyist?” said Colleen Flanagan, spokeswoman for the Board of Regents for Higher Education.

To try to tamp down public criticism of its spending, Congress has temporarily eliminated “earmarks” or money for local projects lawmakers tucked into spending bills. Federal agencies are also feeling the pinch of congressional budget cutters, which means applications for grant money are become more competitive.

Flanagan said the Board of Regents is deciding whether to renew McAllister & Quinn’s contract.

But Jill Ferraiolo, the system’s in-house lobbyist, will still continue to seek funds from nation’s capital. The school spent about about $100,000 to lobby Congress  last year.

John Carson, spokesman for the University of Hartford, said his school is also rethinking its need for a Washington lobbyist. The university has had long relationship with the Palmetto Group, paying it more than $100,000 a year in fees last year.

But Carson said the help it provides may not be worth the money anymore.

“That’s what we’re trying to figure out,” he said.

Last year, the Palmetto Group lobbied Congress for money for a shoulder-fired projectile project that the school is developing in a partnership with private companies.

Palmetto also sought money to build a new dam over the north branch of the Park River that runs through campus.

But funds for the projectile project were not appropriated in this year’s defense spending bill, and Congress failed to act on a water resources bill that would have provided money for the dam.

Other schools have already eliminated their lobbyists.

According to lobbyist disclosure forms, New London’s Mitchell College terminated its relationship with a Washington representative last year.

And the University of Bridgeport, which had hired Panuzio & Giordano to lobby Washington on its behalf, ended its relationship with that West Hartford firm in November.

David Giordano blamed federal budget cuts.

“There just wasn’t enough (money) for them to go after,” he said. “There were just so many ways we could help them.”

Bill Allison, editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation, a government watchdog group, said many small businesses, towns and schools are weighing the worth of a Washington lobbyist. It’s harder to justify the expense when budgets are shrinking and layoffs abound, he said.

But Allison said lobbyists still provide valuable services to larger entities that need “insider knowledge” to compete for the federal funds that are still available.

“(Lobbyists) do more than contact members of Congress,” he said. “They follow (money requests) through federal agencies and do other things. Washington lobbyists do pay off for a lot of companies.”

As far as lobbying goes, Quinnipiac University seems to be bucking the tide.

It hired Washington’s Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough last year to help the school obtain federal funding for a medical college.

“We are very happy with our representation in Washington,” said Donald Weinbach, Quinnipiac’s vice president for development.

He believes the Obama administration will place great emphasis on the training of primary care doctors to help fulfill the goals of the health care reform act. That, Weinbach said, will result in lots of grant money for medical schools.

“We are hopeful we are in the right place at the right time,” he said.

Some schools, like the University of Connecticut and Yale University, have used in-house lobbying departments to influence Washington and are likely to continue to do so.

According to lobbying disclosure forms, the University of Connecticut spent $280,000 last year on in-house lobbying efforts to seek funding from a number of appropriations bills.

Yale spent more than $600,000 last year on its in-house lobbying efforts on a long list of issues.

The university sought research funding from a number of federal agencies, including the Pentagon, National Institutes of Health and NASA, disclosure reports show.

It also lobbied on behalf of general education funding, student aid programs and the DREAM Act, a bill that would create a legal pathway to citizenship for children who were brought to the United States illegally.

Yale also fought congressional efforts to cut federal money for the National Endowment for the Humanities and National Endowment for the Arts.