Thursday, May 20, 2010

CTA, RTA, Metra, PACE spent nearly $1 million on Springfield lobbying

SPRINGFIELD — Chicago-area transit agencies that oversee bus and train service paid nearly $1 million to lobbyists to try to influence state government decisions over the course of a year --- a significant share of the $6.4 million local taxpayers shelled out to make their interests known at the Capitol.

The findings came in an annual survey by the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, a non-partisan group that is calling for greater transparency to better track the public dollars spent on lobbying.

The four Chicago area transit agencies increased lobbyist spending by 4 percent to $953,484, doing business with 14 different lobbying firms between July 2, 2008, and June 30, 2009, the group’s survey showed.

The Chicago Transit Authority racked up the highest tab at $385,345 among transit agencies and all 119 government bodies surveyed for lobbyist expenses. Metra spent $264,504, the Regional Transportation Authority, $171,635; and suburban bus service PACE, $132,000.

RTA Chairman Jim Reilly said his agency is spending less than in prior years but is still working on far-reaching legislative issues, including seeking state money for public works projects and securing overdue state payments.

Metra spokeswoman Judy Pardonnet said the contract lobbyists are the agency’s “eyes and ears” in Springfield, working with lawmakers, testifying on legislation and monitoring proposals that might have a financial impact.

CTA spokeswoman Noelle Gaffney said that unlike other government bodies, the transit agency does not have taxing authority and relies primarily on fares and public funding. The CTA “needs to be in the mix” in Springfield and needs skilled representation to work on the agency’s behalf, particularly in the tight financial times, Gaffney said.

Major transit issues during the survey period ranged from seeking more public works money from the state to scaling back the senior citizen free ride plan put in place by ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich before he was impeached, ousted and indicted. Blagojevich made free rides for seniors his price for supporting a sales tax increase for mass transit. This spring, lawmakers advanced legislation to allow for means testing to determine which seniors should qualify for free local bus and train rides.

The survey also found 15 public community colleges and universities spent more than $1 million on contract lobbyists. Of those, the City Colleges of Chicago ranked the highest in the survey, with $190,986 in expenses.

To collect the information, the reform group had to file Freedom of Information Act requests because the state, unlike the city of Chicago, Cook County and the federal government, does not require lobbyists to disclose how much they are paid.

There were discrepancies in the organization's findings.

For example, Steve Brown, spokesman for House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, was included in the report because the Chicago Housing Authority provided the group information about Brown’s $1,500-a-month contract when the reform group requested lobbyist information, said David Morrison, the group’s deputy director.

But CHA spokeswoman Kellie O’Connell-Miller said the CHA’s response was a mistake. She said Brown does not lobby for CHA, but rather has a contract to give “strategic counsel” to the agency’s senior staff. Brown also said he does not lobby. He said he performs communications work and addresses strategic matters. Brown has a $98,000-a-year state contract as Madigan’s spokesman.

No comments: