It's time to unmask university's lobbyists

Editorial Board
AUSTIN AMERICAN-STATESMAN
Sunday, December 15, 2002

They are employed by Texas public university systems. They are paid in the high six-figure range. They aggressively push agendas at the Legislature that promote their employers' interests.

But don't call them lobbyists; call them "vice chancellors for governmental relations."

It's time to halt this pretense in which public dollars are being used to finance lobbyists.

State law prohibits state agencies from lobbying -- helping to pass or defeat legislation. It does permit state employees ( including those at public colleges and universities) to provide lawmakers information. Part-time lawmakers largely would be in the dark regarding higher education without that kind of expert information. We certainly believe university officials -- be they chancellors of governmental relations or other staff -- provide a valuable service and are well within the law when they give balanced, detailed information. Lawmakers rely on it.

But clearly, some university systems have strayed dangerously close to -- if not crossed -- the legal line by aggressively lobbying legislators. In some cases, those actions have drawn sharp rebukes:

* In 1997, state Rep. Ron Wilson, D-Houston, was so infuriated about the University of Texas' lobbying on his bill to admit collegiate athletes on the same academic criteria as regular students, he threatened to seek a formal opinion from the Texas Ethics Commission to halt those efforts.

* In 2001, several legislators blasted UT for outright lobbying over the Texas Excellence Fund, designed to steer more research money to more of the state's schools, especially Texas Tech University, the University of Houston and the University of North Texas. UT mounted an intense lobby effort to obtain half of the $67 million for its campuses.

Those warnings have not humbled UT. If anything, UT has been emboldened because its efforts bore fruit.

That might explain why the UT system took things a step further this year when it hired an outside lobbyist (which it called outside counsel). Former state Sen. David Sibley, among the most influential senators for the past decade, is a registered lobbyist. He earned $80,632 (paid with public and private dollars) during the 10 months he worked as an adviser for UT. His contract expired Nov. 30.

The system also hired lawyer Sandy Kress to ensure UT has access to federal grants in President Bush's Leave No Child Behind initiative. To date, Kress a former adviser to Bush, has been paid $52,774 from public and private funds.

Those efforts to win favor in Texas and in Washington are complimented by another high-profile UT system hire: Ashley Smith. Smith, an adviser to Gov. Rick Perry, will be paid $284,000 a year and $8,400 for a car allowance when he comes on board as vice chancellor of governmental relations in January -- the week before the Legislature convenes in Austin.

The UT system is not the only higher education entity to hire vice chancellors who double as lobbyists. All of the state university systems employ them. And several, including Texas Tech, Texas A&M and the University of Houston, also employ governmental relations employees to staff their offices in Washington.

Such arrangements are as much aimed at gaining access to influential state and national leaders as they are in providing information. It's a fiction that is fooling no one. But one that has paid off.

Perhaps lawmakers should be blamed for permitting this abuse. Paying lavish salaries to outside consultants or to state employees who then lobby lawmakers could backfire.

"From my standpoint, it's another sign that UT is too big for its britches and basically thinks the Legislature is a problem to work around rather than an institution to which to be accountable," said Sen. Steve Ogden, R-Bryan, co-chairman of the interim committee on higher education and member of the budget-writing Senate Finance Committee.

The pretense just may be over.