UT, Regents spend $1.1 million relating to legislators, state officials (it’s not lobbying)

University of Tennessee President Joe DiPietro has made 30 trips to Nashville this year, mostly to meet with state legislators and state officials, at a cost of $12,340, reports the News Sentinel.

For the other 200 or so days each year when he can’t be in Nashville, UT’s president has a government relations office with five staff members and a $725,000 budget to manage the system’s interests.

Combined with the Tennessee Board of Regents, officials at the two systems estimate they spend more than $1.1 million on advocacy in Nashville. The University of Tennessee system has an overall $1.99 billion operating budget, including tuition, grants and private donations across all campuses, and the Board of Regents has a budget of $2.8 billion.

“I see what we do as a fairly integral part of the Legislature being able to perform its function,” said David Gregory, vice chancellor for administration and facilities development for the Board of Regents. “I hope this doesn’t sound too Pollyanna, but we see ourselves as having the ability to help committees and individual members to think through implications of policy proposals.”

The Board of Regents, across its central office and campuses, has nine employees whose duties include advocating at the state level, ranging from roughly 60 percent of their workload down to 1 percent. The corresponding portions of their salaries and expenses combine for an overall cost of $384,219.

Gregory and his counterpart at UT insist — as do the state statutes — that they are not lobbyists.

Rather, because they are state employees, both described their role as more of a liaison and insist that much of what they do is running down information for legislators on how policy could affect students, faculty or university finances.

“The majority of what we do is providing information as a resource. If I could describe a typical week, I could find ourselves in the chair’s office of the education committee,” Gregory said. “They’re interested in knowing what’s the impact of this? What will happen if we implement this proposal, what do you think about that?”

Yet, much of their duties also include advocating or looking out for legislation that could affect their schools.

In addition to advocating for their share of the state budget, the two higher education systems have, in recent years, helped usher in legislation to make lottery-funded scholarships available in the summer and fought off multiple incarnations of bills that would allow guns on campus — with varying degrees of success.

“It’s an incredible amount of defense,” said Anthony Haynes, UT’s vice president for government relations, who estimated that 80 percent of his work is discouraging legislation that would cost the university extra money or affect the quality of the education.

“If you have to wait to the time an issue comes up on the committee calendar and comes up in committee, at that point in time, you’re pretty much just watching it go through,” he said.

In April, Haynes also had to soothe tensions after students on the Knoxville campus organized a “Sex Week,” which included educational programming along with a drag show and golden condom scavenger hunt.