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Published in Print: February 23, 2000, as Illinois Ed. Hires Big-Time Washington Lobbyists

Illinois Ed. Hires Big-Time Washington Lobbyists

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A recent decision by Illinois education officials to hire a top Washington lobbying firm to pursue more federal funding for the state is raising eyebrows among observers both inside and outside the Capital Beltway.

The Illinois board of education—in partnership with the two boards overseeing the state's higher education system—agreed last month to pay $182,000 for a five-month contract with Barbour, Griffith & Rogers. The law firm is owned in part by Haley Barbour, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, and has represented such corporate giants as Phillip Morris and the Microsoft Corp. The contract was signed Jan. 24.

While a handful of education agencies in large states, such as California and New York, have had representatives in Washington for a number of years, observers say the high profile—and high cost—of the firm Illinois hired is unprecedented.

"Illinois is really raising the stakes around education lobbying ... by hiring such a high-priced law firm," said Arnold Fege, the president of Public Advocacy for Kids, a nonprofit consulting firm based near Washington in Annandale, Va. "If more states did that, what would happen to the states that can't afford to engage in this high-stakes competition for money?"

The state board of education agreed to pay for two-thirds of the contract, while the Illinois board of higher education and the Illinois community college board will pick up the remaining third. Based on its 1998 lobbying revenues of $7.4 million, the law firm of Barbour, Griffith & Rogers was ranked as the sixth-leading lobbying firm in Washington in a 1999 report by the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington-based watchdog group that tracks money in federal politics.

Illinois Superintendent Glenn W. "Max" McGee said he sought out the firm because of concerns that the state was being shortchanged compared with other states in obtaining federal aid for education. The upcoming reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—which includes the $8 billion federal Title I program for disadvantaged students—added urgency to the decision, Mr. McGee said.

"Given the amount of federal funds in the balance, it would be irresponsible for us not to have a significant presence in Washington," he said. "I look at this lobbying firm and the money we spent as an investment in education, and we're expecting returns."

Funding Growth Lags

According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, Illinois' share of federal education dollars from fiscal 1998 through fiscal 2000, the current year, increased at a lower rate than for other states of comparable size. Illinois' total federal education funds grew by 14 percent over the three years—from $1.12 billion in 1998 to $1.28 billion in 2000. Federal education funding in California and Florida, meanwhile, increased by 20 percent and 18 percent, respectively, over the same time period.

In their contract with Barbour, Griffith & Rogers, the Illinois education boards specify that the firm is expected to help them increase their federal education funding by 6 percent over fiscal 1999 funding levels.

The more people working to raise the profile of education among federal lawmakers, the better, said David A. Griffith, the director of governmental and public relations for the National Association of State Boards of Education, who is not connected to Barbour, Griffith & Rogers. At the same time, Mr. Griffith warned, "you don't want to set up a competition between the states over federal dollars. You'd lose the broad picture, especially because federal funding makes up only [a small] percent."

Some Illinois state lawmakers questioned the need for the contract.

"That's an awful lot of money to be spending from taxpayer dollars to lobby for more taxpayer dollars," said state Rep. Julie A. Curry, a Democrat who chairs the House committee that oversees appropriations for K-12 education. Ms. Curry also noted that the state school board already has an Illinois-based federal liaison on staff. "If we have a congressional delegation fighting for more dollars in Washington, I don't see how useful a lobbyist is," she added.

Lobbying Contracts Rare

Several state education agencies, including those of New York and Texas, have federal liaisons who are based in Washington, but who are employed by the states themselves. California's department appears to be the only other state education agency to have a lobbying contract with a private Washington firm.

The Florida education department, meanwhile, employs a private Washington-based firm to serve as an "information liaison" on federal legislation and funding sources, but not to lobby on the agency's behalf, an department spokeswoman said.

Teri Burns, the deputy superintendent for government relations at the California Department of Education, said her agency currently has a one-year, $203,000 contract with Brustein & Manasevit—a lobbying firm that specializes in representing education interests.

"It is so much easier to have them there," Ms. Burns said. "Our lobbyists' job is to educate the congressional staff—something they can do more effectively being there face to face than we could do once a month."

Mr. McGee said that while Illinois' congressional delegation has proved helpful, its members "have many other concerns and many other issues to deal with."

"We have their support, but we need someone else to really be an active presence just for education in Illinois," Mr. McGee added.

Vol. 19, Issue 24, Pages 18,24

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