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Beyond the News

Higher ed lobbyists offer continuance, expertise in new political arena

College students are positively affected by lobbyists representing university interests
University Business, March 2017

In uncertain political times, some higher ed lobbyists say their most important role may be blocking legislation that could harm their client colleges and universities.

Term limits result in lobbyists constantly forging relationships with legislators, as well as reintroducing their institution to a new set of lawmakers.

“The key is to know that you have to start all over—and the goal is to improve on your methods each time,” says Janet Owen, vice president for governmental affairs and associate general counsel at University of North Florida. “New legislators bring new ideas and new concerns to the forefront.”

Lobbyists represent university interests in critical, politicized issues that affect college students—such as student debt, textbook affordability, performance funding, student safety and mental health, public-private partnerships, and immigration policy.

While some community members may be concerned with lobbyists’ salaries, many states have created legislation to better define the employment of lobbyists.

For example, Florida authorizes full-time employees of state colleges and universities to register as lobbyists and represent that employer before the legislative or executive branch.

Schools cannot employ contract or private lobbyists. Therefore, university employees who may lobby for their employer must also have year-round duties with the institution; contractual lobbyists are hired with private funds, not university dollars, says Owen.

There is a push from both the Trump administration and the state of Florida to increase the number of years before an elected official can serve as a lobbyist, which Owen sees as a potential loss. The experience of veteran lawmakers has never been more valuable, she says.

“Lobbyists have always been challenged by the label of ‘influence peddler.’ I think the opportunity is in serving as industry or subject matter experts or liaisons,” Owen adds. “I see my job as that of providing accurate information to policymakers to help them make the best, most informed decisions they can.”

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