Transit agencies spend millions on lobbyists
Daily Herald: On Guard
In a climate of austerity, transit agencies are shelling out millions for high-paid state and federal lobbyists. But whether riders are getting their money's worth is elusive to prove.
Dispatching lobbyists to Springfield or Washington, D.C., is essential to get the ear of lawmakers, influence government policy and secure funding, transit officials say.
Yet some critics wonder if the army of firms hired by the CTA, Metra, Pace and Regional Transportation Authority are necessary and whether, in fact, they're duplicating or undercutting each other. Others question the connections between lobbyists and contributions to lawmakers.
Through Freedom of Information Act requests, the Daily Herald learned the following.
• Since 2004, the four transit agencies spent more than $12.8 million for 27 lobbyists. On several occasions, agencies employed the same firms.
• In 2009, a year of shortfalls and doomsday predictions, the four agencies paid 20 lobbying firms nearly $2.5 million.
• Lobbyists hired by the Chicago Transit Authority, Metra, RTA and Pace have poured $1.8 million into state lawmakers' election campaigns, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections.
• Transit officials claim money invested in lobbying has resulted in millions of dollars, but the transit system is perpetually short of funding for both capital and operating needs.
• If you want some way to independently measure what lobbyists do for their employers, good luck. Although lobbyists are expected to issue regular reports to transit agencies describing their activities, the Daily Herald's request for that information was denied.
"It's an odd situation where one government entity is paying lobbyists to go to another government entity for funding. Is this how we want our tax dollars spent?" asked Terry Pastika, executive director of the Citizen Advocacy Council, a good-government group based in DuPage County.
Transit agencies said lobbying is essential.
"The most effective legislators and congressmen understand the value of lobbyists and the information they convey," former RTA Executive Director Steve Schlickman said.
"The level of investment we made on lobbying has paid off in the past and we hope it will pay off in the future. I don't know of a congressman who doesn't listen to a lobbyist," Schlickman told the Daily Herald recently in his capacity as RTA chief shortly before taking a job at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
State Sen. Kirk Dillard, however, called the $12.8 million "a massive amount of money. It's questionable whether the return is worth it."
"Generally, I think most of these fees are wasted. When I want answers about mass transit, I'll call the chairman of the authority or their executive director," he said.
Dillard, a Hinsdale Republican, also called for a review of all lobbying contracts to see if expenses are justified.
The biggest spender is Metra with $5.4 million expended on lobbyists since 2004, followed by the CTA with $4.2 million, the RTA with $2.3 million and Pace with $855,800.
Last year, Metra spent $1.1 million on lobbyists.
"These people are acting as our eyes and ears in Washington and Springfield. We don't have staff in either of those locations. What they do is monitor legislation, strategize and help us navigate the funding process," Metra spokeswoman Judy Pardonnet said.
Lobbyists aid Metra in monitoring both the Federal Transit Agency and the Federal Railroad Administration, Pardonnet said.
The CTA spent more than $820,000 in 2009 on seven lobbying firms.
"It is worth this level of expense to engage experts in the areas of legislative and grant-making processes. All of our lobbyists are highly skilled and can be attributed with helping maintain the levels of funding we get today," a CTA official said in an e-mail.
Pace paid out nearly $162,000 to four firms in 2009 for lobbying the state and Chicago government.
Pace used to employ three legislative outreach staffers but has downsized that to one, spokesman Patrick Wilmot said.
"By using lobbyists on a contract basis, we are spending less as it relates to salary, benefits, and other expenses," Wilmot said.
"Additionally, we are able to contract with companies that provide a high level of expertise and experience.
Divide and conquer?
The civic organization Chicago Metropolis 2020 recently released a report that called the relationship among the RTA and the agencies it oversees dysfunctional.
There's too much competition among the CTA, Metra and Pace, the report stated.
Metropolis 2020 Executive Director Frank Beal said that lack of coordination could apply to lobbying, adding he suspected costs could be reduced if the agencies worked together rather than separately. "Do we really need all that lobbying managed in four separate silos?" he asked.
Schlickman explained that "each agency feels in this environment and structure to protect their interests they need their own lobbyists, but we try to leverage everyone's investment for the good of the entire system."
Pardonnet said, "we do work together to maximize these messages when we can. We also have our individual agendas."
Both the RTA and Pace hired the same firm, BP Consultants, in 2009 and 2010 to help with state and Chicago lobbying, respectively. The overlap was news to the RTA, Schlickman said, adding "we're taking steps to address that."
The CTA and Metra both employ Capricorn Communications, a firm run by former U.S. Rep. Bill Lipinski.
Agencies collaborated successfully on lobbying in 2007 and 2008, when the General Assembly passed legislation increasing the sales tax to help pay for transit and restructuring the RTA.
The RTA said federal lobbyists have helped secure about $884 million for projects involving improvements to the CTA's Blue Line and Brown Line and Metra's North Central Line, UP West Line and Southwest Service.
Pace officials said lobbyists helped raise its share of state capital dollars from 5 percent to 8 percent and secured a $45 million earmark in 2009 for paratransit.
Wilmot also credited lobbyists for advancing a bill requiring full funding of paratransit despite opposition from the CTA and Metra.
Despite such perceived victories, transit agencies are woefully short on capital. An RTA report in August estimated the funding to keep all three systems in good repair at $24 billion over 10 years while experts anticipated only $8 billion will be available at best.
Operating funds also are short, with some agencies turning to capital funds to balance operating budgets.
"These types of expenditures are indicative of overspending, lack of oversight and agencies neglecting to scrutinize the need for lobbyists," said state Sen. Susan Garrett, a Lake Forest Democrat.
While transit leaders credit lobbying firms with securing millions, it's difficult to prove that assertion. Although most lobbying firms are required by contract to provide employers with progress updates, the CTA and Metra denied the Daily Herald's Freedom of Information request for those documents, citing attorney-client privilege.
Pace officials said they did not have any progress reports to pass on and the RTA said all reports were done verbally.
At the request of the Daily Herald, the Illinois Attorney General's public access counselor is looking into the FOI denials
"It's not good for democracy, if you need lobbyists to get access to funds," Pastika said. "It raises the question of how government decision making happens."
Coming Monday: A look at lobbyist donations and the interaction with lawmakers.