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updated: 7/21/2011 4:53 PM

RTA hires lobbyists to influence lawmakers

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Despite some qualms about accountability and possible redundancy, Regional Transportation Authority board directors Thursday agreed to spend $207,000 on four lobbying firms that will focus on state and local governments.

Lobbyists are essential to quash unwanted legislation, such as a recent Illinois Senate proposal that would have diverted millions in sales taxes by allowing companies to move sales offices to downstate locations with fewer taxes, RTA administrators said.

"It's important for us to have legislation that's helpful rather than disruptive," Executive Director Joe Costello said.

The lobbying firms include Chicago-based Leinenweber & Baroni, The Roosevelt Group, Springfield-based ThomsonWeir and consultant Paul Williams.

"It's a good team that will help us in a busy year," Deputy Executive Director of Government Affairs Jordan Matyas said.

Director William Coulson of Glenview questioned the expenditure.

"The public has trouble seeing why a government agency has to lobby another government agency," Coulson said.

"I've heard from legislators saying they are very confused about legislation that comes before them when Metra (lobbyists) tells them one thing and the CTA tells them something else and the RTA tells them something else."

A 2010 Daily Herald report found that the RTA, Metra, CTA and Pace had spent more than $12.8 million on 27 lobbying firms since 2004 and sometimes they had conflicting or duplicative agendas.

The RTA and transit agencies confer weekly about legislation when the General Assembly is in session, Matyas said, but he acknowledged, "on some issues we have different philosophies. Some are about money, some are philosophical."

But overall, there is "much more commonality than in the past," RTA Chairman John Gates Jr. said.

"Do they give us written reports?" asked Director Donald Totten of Elgin.

Sometimes lobbyists submit written reports but mostly they account for their work by phone or in person, Matyas said.

"Lobbying is a mystical process," Coulson noted, adding he didn't know if the agency was getting value for its money.

RTA Director Pat Durante of Addison, a longtime top aide to former Congressman Henry Hyde, noted that sometimes "a visit from the chairman of the RTA can have more impact with the congressional delegation than a Washington lobbyist."

The agency should save about $134,000 by not continuing a contract with federal lobbyist Blank Rome, Matyas said.

Instead, the money will be directed toward a public-relations campaign aimed at securing funding for the three transit agencies to keep their equipment and infrastructure in good repair.