In a game ruled by PACs, Michigan higher ed stays on the bench

One represents a special interest group of about 20 property owners. The other serves an institution known around the world, with thousands of employees, tens of thousands of current users and hundreds of thousands who once passed through its doors. Both have an abiding interest in how Michigan’s state government sees their activities.

So of course the University of Michigan’s political action committee outspent the Michigan Association of Theater Owners PAC in the first seven months of this year – by $350.

What the theater owners got for their $11,500 is unknown. But the University of Michigan, along with 14 other public colleges and universities in the state, has seen a 15 percent reduction in their state appropriation, for a total loss of $231.1 million, according to the state’s 2011-2012 Higher Education Appropriations Report. 

One might think such cuts would galvanize an army of lobbyists and strategic campaign contributions, but total expenditures from the political action committees of nearly all of Michigan’s public universities have been in a steady decline for nearly a decade.

In 2003-04, public university PACs gave more than $250,000 to political campaigns, but expenditures from 2011-12 barely surpassed $116,000, based on data compiled by Rich Robinson, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network.

So why is the Michigan Association of Funeral Directors raising more lobbying funds than most of Michigan’s public universities? And why aren’t university PACs – with access to vast alumni networks of potential donors – investing more in political activities that would better support higher education?

“We're trying to overcome the common wisdom that most universities spend out of control,” said Dave Waymire, a partner at Martin-Waymire Advocacy Communications, which provides public relations services for a number of Michigan universities. “The truth is, the cost of providing an education hasn’t changed much. What’s changed is that state support for universities has gone down considerably.”

No numbers, little strength?

Relatively small university PACs can’t compete with committees from business organizations or labor groups.

PACs from interest groups such as Business Leaders for Michigan and the Michigan Association of Realtors spend in the high six-figure range, according to Michigan Campaign Finance Network data.

Comparatively, the top university PAC – Friends of Ferris State University – spent $66,889. But Michigan State’s Green and White PAC – representing a far larger university with more resources at its disposal – gave only $23,180.

Robinson said that public university PACs are customarily small, private college PACs are mostly nonexistent and that a PAC’s size is often dependent on support and leadership.

But that isn’t always true elsewhere. The Citizens for Higher Education PAC of the University of North Carolina, for example, raised more than $200,000 its first year of existence in 2002. Members pay $2,000 in dues to support the organization.

A new landscape

In Michigan, “super PACs” – which have no limits on contributions or spending – changed everything, said Matt McLogan, vice president of government relations at Grand Valley State University.

“The PAC world has changed dramatically in the last half dozen years or so,” he said. “The rules have changed and committees are getting larger and larger. We can’t compete at that level and we don’t try to.”

PAC expenditures often vary widely from year to year, and officials theorize that it’s based on which scandidates are running for election.

“A university might not feel there are legislators committed enough to higher education to be worth investing in,” Robinson said.

“It’s cyclical and it’s personal,” McLogan confirmed. “At the end of the day, it requires us to identify members of the House and Senate who are supportive of high education, and lately those individuals have been fewer in number.”

Greg Rosine, vice president of government affairs and university relations at Western Michigan University, stressed that while political candidates need support, university PACs aren’t going to get them elected.

“There’s an idealized model that our democracy doesn’t cost anything,” Rosine said. “It isn’t real. It doesn’t exist. But we aren’t ever going to be able to bankroll a candidate.”

Where does support come from?

Leigh Greden, volunteer chairman of the Friends of Eastern Michigan University PAC, said donors include alumni, employees and regents – many without large incomes, which leads to a relatively small operation.

But what about universities with larger support networks?

Cynthia Wilbanks, vice president of government relations at the University of Michigan, said that the U-M PAC – like most university PACs – is a modest committee with more focused interests.

“Most of the contributions received are from individuals who work in and around the health system, and are in support of officials who work closely with health care issues,” Wilbanks said. “It hasn't always been that way. We did used to have a more diverse group of individuals making donations.”

Can more be done?

Mike Boulus, executive director of the Presidents Council, State Universities of Michigan, suggests that PACs are simply not a priority source for alumni donations.

“Universities tap into their alumni groups for an awful lot,” Boulus said. “And universities are going to spend their greatest efforts and donations on university development projects. There’s always fundraising going on.”

The University of Michigan recently made headlines for a $200 million donation from real estate developer Stephen Ross, an alumnus. But it is earmarked for athletics and the business school that already bears Ross’ name.

PAC expenditures can also be dependent on whether or not it’s an election year, or if a university wants to spend limited dollars on lawmakers for the sake of its reputation, Boulus said.

Many alumni also support candidates that influence education appropriation directly, Wilbanks said.

“I would say that we haven’t had a widespread effort to solicit additional contributions from alums or other donors,” Wilbanks said. “Many University of Michigan contributors are already making donations to these elected officials. But we don’t have a specific program in place to solicit donations to our PAC.”

Spending for access

So what is accomplished by existing PACs? For some, it’s the chance to network with people who influence education funding or policy, said McLogan.

“Friends of Grand Valley has been largely used as a device by which to obtain fundraising tickets for events that are put on by members of the House and the Senate who are friendly to higher education,” McLogan said. “And we can show respect or appreciation for a candidate here and there.”

It’s not the goal of university PACs to buy votes, said Western Michigan’s Rosine.

“It’s about being a participant and showing your appreciation for the system,” Rosine said. “Universities should participate in public policy discussion. We rely on volunteers - we aren’t going to be able to turn elections around, but we can show that we fully participated in the democratic process. I think that goes a long way.”

Celeste Bott is a student at Michigan State University, and a Bridge intern for the 2013-14 school year.

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Thu, 10/17/2013 - 11:02am
I am beginning to believe that business should have a direct financial connection to our institutions of higher learning. If businesses had to pay a fee to the universities for each graduate they hired, there might be more interest in designing a curriculum around preparing our graduates for a career. In the past, corporations reached out for grads from schools with established reputations for preparing their alumni for the real world. Today it is hard to find a grad that can properly communicate in the written word yet alone speak to a group. It matters not how good your idea is, if it can not be presented in a suitable manner, your credibility is lost.
Thu, 10/17/2013 - 1:07pm
Isn't there something unseemly about a governmental entity taking taxpayer money and using those funds to turnaround lobby for more? It certainly happens but none the less why encourage it?
Richard McLellan
Thu, 10/17/2013 - 6:22pm
The article is incomplete in that it suggests that the university PACs are directly controlled by the universities. Michigan law is clear -- a government instrumentality like a state public university cannot legally get involve in raising or spending money for candidate elections. As far as I know, the universities all comply with the law and no taxpayer funds are used. The reason many university-related PACS say "Friends of...." is because the PAC is an independent committee not administered directly by the university. Of course the university government relations people are consulted on how to use the funds, but legally the PAC is private and separate from the state university (or at least they are supposed to be).
Sun, 10/20/2013 - 12:18am
It would seem that the individual schools' alumni that give millions to the schools could form their on PACs and do the 'lobbying' for the schools. My best guess the universities in Michigan have hundreds of thousands of alumns, at $10 each that shold make some truly strong PACs for tose schools. I suspect the adminstrators are the state colleges/univerisities have many opportunities to talk to legislators in Lansing, and to encourage their graduates to also make such contacts. That would seem to be a powerful resource to unleash in lansing.