Peoria Journal Star

February 17, 2003

Peoria's D.C. lobbyist struggles with funding
Hired to find money for local projects, Simon became a budget casualty

By DORI MEINERT
of Copley News Service

WASHINGTON, D.C. - Last year was a tough one for D.C. lobbyists. Leonard Simon was no exception.

Simon was hired by the Peoria City Council 12 months ago to help find federal funding for local projects as the city, like others across the country, struggled to maintain basic services during the current economic downturn.

However, Congress passed few appropriations bills last year, leaving Simon and other municipal lobbyists with little to show for their efforts. Then, Simon himself became a casualty of Peoria's budget woes. His $30,000 consulting fee was cut from the city's 2003 budget.

But Peoria Mayor Dave Ransburg said that having a federal lobbyist on the city payroll is an integral part of his plan to find new funding sources that will help long-term plans to revitalize the city.

"I thought he did what he was supposed to do," Ransburg said of Simon, whom he still hopes to rehire. "Congress didn't do what it was supposed to do."

Small- and medium-sized cities are increasingly turning to lobbyists to give them a leg up in the competition for federal funds. Federal and state subsidies for cities are shrinking even as the demands on cities increase.

For example, Ransburg and other mayors want more federal money to help pay police, fire and emergency workers to prepare to respond to terrorism concerns.

"It's a very complex process, and if you don't play the game, you probably don't get anything out of it," said Ransburg, who was in Washington last month for a U.S. Conference of Mayors meeting.

While the lobbyist concept is new to Peoria and has been met with skepticism, several other cities around the state have had lobbyists for years - from the city of Chicago, which maintains a five-person staff in the capital, to tiny Galena in northwest Illinois.

Flushing funds

Historic Galena may be small, with a population of just 3,600, but 1.5 million people annually visit its many historic sites, including the home of the 18th president, Ulysses S. Grant.

"All those people flush toilets," said lobbyist Timothy Moore, who was hired by Galena city officials three years ago to find funding to replace an aging sewer plant.

It's typical for smaller towns to hire Washington lobbyists for a specific project or two.

"It's not high-tech. It's not sexy. It's not guns in Iraq. It's what people need," Moore said.

Early last year, Simon worked with Peoria city officials to prioritize their needs before accompanying Ransburg to meet with Illinois lawmakers on Capitol Hill. The city's priorities included federal funds to improve infrastructure to help develop a biosciences center; improve the city's sanitary sewer district; improve police communications technology; and extend and improve Pioneer Parkway to encourage economic development.

Local funds

Some funds for those projects were included in a massive $397.4 billion catchall funding bill that won final approval from Congress late Thursday night. The legislation included $1 million to begin Pioneer Parkway extension, connecting the two fastest-growing areas in Peoria, as well as $225,000 for infrastructure improvements for the proposed biosciences center, according to Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Peoria, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee.

Most lobbyists know better than to promise their clients specific results. Sometimes success is measured in baby steps, by laying groundwork for some future action.

"None of this ever has to get done in one year," said Simon, in an interview before the bill's passage.

Patricia Daley, who lobbies for the cities of Freeport, DeKalb and Palatine, said last year "was very difficult for appropriation lobbyists because we're just waiting and working with the appropriations staffs to make sure our projects fit the criteria and hopefully stay in the bill we're working on."

A typical day

For Simon, a typical day finds him in his modest downtown office poring over newly published federal regulations that might affect his clients. He stays away from the issues that affect all cities - those are handled by the U.S. Conference of Mayors or the National League of Cities.

He views himself as an extension of city staff, whose knowledge of Congress and federal agencies can help city officials stay on top of funding opportunities and seek relief from unfair federal regulations.

A good lobbyist knows how to present a city's request to a lawmaker with all the required supporting material to make life easier for already overworked congressional staff, Simon and others said.

"You want to focus on things where you have at least a possibility of success and you don't ever want to make requests to the congressional delegation that are unreasonable. You try to focus on reasonable and practical targets," Simon said.

"The people who work in congressional offices are among the hardest-working people in the country. I think it's terribly unfair to say 'Here's our ultimate objective, here's our goal. Please help us get there.'

"I think they want to do that. But you've got to help them help you. You've got to identify as many funding sources as possible."

HUD saves a sub

Sometimes the job requires a little creative thinking. Lobbyist and former congressional aide Todd Atkinson boasts how he once found an unlikely source of federal funding to help preserve a Nazi submarine on display at the Museum of Science and Industry. The submarine funding came from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

And, when there are results, lobbyists are careful to give credit to the lawmakers who cast the votes. Simon, 50, is a professional staffer who began his career working for a city council member in Portland, Ore., who has since become a member of Congress. Simon then worked for nine years for the U.S. Conference of Mayors, focusing on legislation involving transportation, infrastructure and the environment. That's where he first became familiar with Peoria - through then-Peoria Mayor Dick Carver, who was president of the mayors' conference from 1979 to 1980.

It was at last year's gathering of mayors here that Ransburg first met Simon, who was recommended by another mayor. Simon represents 12 cities from Milwaukee to Portland, Ore.

Still, there are critics of the growing trend for cities to hire lobbyists.

There's the practical view. City Councilman Patrick Nichting questions why Peoria needs a lobbyist when the city's interests have been served well by Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Peoria, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who is on the Senate Appropriations Committee.

"It's difficult for me to justify to taxpayers hiring a consultant to do this when I feel that our local representatives at the state and federal level have been very forthcoming . . ." Nichting said.

Then, there are ethical considerations. Critics suggest there is something unseemly in using public money to gain influence with lawmakers to capture more public money.

"It's one measure of the way that Washington works. One of the sadder things is that you can't get the attention of Congress without a Hill lobbyist," said Bill Allison, managing editor of The Center for Public Integrity.

If Peoria wins money, he said, "chances are someone else will lose out on it.