Senator criticizes WVU’s lobbying efforts
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - West Virginia University's lobbying efforts will focus on trying to curb a decline in research funding and shore up a budget facing cuts by the Tomblin administration.
But the effort, which involves the recent decision to hire two contract lobbyists for Charleston and another lobbyist in Washington, is already facing early criticism from a key ally in the Senate.
Senate Finance Chairman Roman Prezioso, whose district includes part of Morgantown, said he does not think the university needs its own lobbyists.
"WVU is in my district - they are my constituents - I don't know of any constituents in my district that need a lobbyist to talk to me," Prezioso, D-Marion, said.
Prezioso said he agreed with the late. U.S. Sen. Robert Byrd who kicked a WVU lobbyist out of his Washington office in 1989 and then asked university officials, "Why do you waste your money on a lobbyist when I'm being paid to be your senator?"
But his opposition to WVU's lobbyists didn't stop Prezioso from attending dinner at the high-end Chop House restaurant in Charleston in mid-September with several other lawmakers and WVU's general counsel and one of the university's lobbyists.
Prezioso said Sunday he didn't realize the dinner was about WVU and that the university really didn't come up. It's not clear who paid for the dinner.
Senate President Jeff Kessler, who attended the dinner, said he doesn't have a problem with WVU's lobbyists. They came to see him earlier that day to talk about facility improvements and budget cuts.
Already-announced budget cuts next year would affect the university, WVU spokeswoman Becky Lofstead said.
"They would translate into about $12 million and likely result in program cuts, higher tuition for our students and delayed implementation of deferred maintenance and other capital improvements," she said.
The university is also dealing with a drop in research funding. Preliminary figures show the university received $117 million for research last year, which is $57 million less than the previous year.
The university attributes a major portion of that decline to the loss off federal stimulus funds and additional declines in Congressionally directed funds. Lofstead said other colleges have seen such drops and that WVU is heartened some competitively earned grants are still coming in strong.
Kessler said lobbyists are talking about "Bucks for Brains" style funds from the state. That state program, created several years ago, helped send millions to WVU and Marshall University for research, but WVU has already tapped its share of the fund.
Two prominent lobbyists - Paul Hardesty and John Cavacini - registered earlier this month to lobby for WVU Research Corp., the university's nonprofit affiliate. They are each making $10,000 for three months of work with contract renewals possible.
WVU may soon be paying, all told, nearly a half million dollars a year on Charleston and D.C. lobbying efforts.
House Finance Chairman Harry Keith White, D-Mingo, said he understood why WVU might need new lobbyists in Charleston.
"I think they felt they had some issues in last year's Legislature that they didn't do very well at," White said.
White said the university wanted to be designated the Marcellus shale research center for the state - but "they didn't do very well on that one," White said.
WVU also hopes to build a Big 12-suitable baseball stadium using a tax-increment financing district. That effort came to an abrupt halt in February when Commerce Department officials told lawmakers they hadn't received any of the necessary documents needed to proceed. The project is now proceeding but will still need legislative approval.
Kessler said tax deal for the stadium came up in passing during his discussions with the university's lobbying team. The deal is meant to benefit the university but the tax deal itself goes to a private land developed. Lofstead said WVU's lobbyists are "certainly aware of the project and its importance to the economic development of this part of the state, but they are not representing WVU on this issue." In a second telephone interview late last week, Kessler said he - not the lobbying team - brought up the tax deal.
Cavacini and Hardesty did not respond to requests for comment.
Kessler said they and the university's general counsel, William Hutchens, visited him during legislative interims, which were the second week of September.
Later that evening, Cavacini and Hutchens went to dinner with other people, including Kessler; Prezioso; Senate Education Chairman Bob Plymale, D-Cabell; Sen. Mike Hall, R-Putnam; and Larry Puccio, the Democratic Party chairman and a lobbyist.
Prezioso said Puccio invited him to the event. The two are old friends from Marion County. Puccio said there wasn't any WVU business spoken about around him.