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June 8, 1995

Learning how to support Pitt through legislative contacts

Pitt employs over 9,600 western Pennsylvanians on its five campuses. More than 100,000 Pitt alumni are residents of Pennsylvania and there are 20 Pitt alumni in the General Assembly.

Taken together, those figures should add up to some solid political clout. However, the University has never really called on its employees or alumni to lobby for Pitt in any organized fashion. That is until now.

"What we need to do is let our legislators know that funding for higher education is important," Director of Commonwealth Relations Ann Dykstra said. "They need to start hearing that it makes a difference." According to Dykstra, state legislators are not hearing from voters associated with higher education. She said they are hearing from a lot of other interest groups, but not the people "who are touched deeply and daily by higher education. We need to get that message out." Dykstra spoke to a lunchtime crowd of about 75 staff and faculty who gathered in Forbes Quad on May 31 to learn how to effectively voice their support for higher education in Pennsylvania and Pitt in particular.

Sponsored by the Office of Governmental Relations, in cooperation with the Staff Association Council, the University Senate's commonwealth relations committee and the Pitt Alumni Legislative Network, the gathering was in response to the fiscal year (FY) 1996 state budget proposed by Gov. Tom Ridge. Higher education institutions throughout the state are concerned about the budget because it contains a base appropriation increase of less than 1.5 percent for state-owned and state-related schools. According to Dykstra, Pennsylvania consistently ranks among the five lowest states in the nation when it comes to funding high education.

If the governor's budget is approved by the General Assembly, Pitt will received only an additional $1.9 million in state funds in FY 1996. And all of the increase would come through the Tuition Challenge Grant Program, which rewards institutions for holding tuition increases for full-time students from Pennsylvania to 4.5 percent.

During separate House and Senate appropriations committee hearings in March and April, Chancellor J. Dennis O'Connor requested an additional 4.5 percent in state funds for Pitt in FY 1996, or a total base appropriation increase of 6 percent.

O'Connor told legislators that even with a 6 percent increase in state funding, Pitt still faces a budget shortfall of $3.5 million next year. Without a 6 percent increase, Pitt will be left with a budget deficit in FY 1996 of more than $8 million.

Those figures are based on a 3.5 percent tuition hike. Partly in response to Gov. Ridge's proposed state budget, Pitt's Board of Trustees' budget committee on May 31 voted to increase tuition by 4.5 percent next year. How that increase may affect the deficit will dependent on student enrollment, which was below expectations this year.

In light of this year's unexpected budget deficit of about $5.7 million, an additional shortfall of $8 million would be devastating to Pitt, its programs and employees, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Governmental Relations Dennis McManus told the May 31 gathering.

Consequently, University officials are seeking the help of Pitt employees and alumni in urging members of the General Assembly to increase the state's FY 1996 base appropriation for Pitt from 1.5 percent to 6 percent.

"Legislators listen to the voices of their constituents," McManus said. "But, of course, to listen to their concerns somebody has to be speaking. Letters, phone calls and visits by constituents send a powerful message to legislators. And it is not necessary to be threatening. The power comes with the return address on the envelope." According to McManus, legislators react very well to personal messages and personal stories from constituents. They pay much more attention to those messages than mountains of postcards and petitions from special-interest groups. McManus said legislators consider constituent service a very important part of their job. And, he added, it does not matter if the person contacting them voted for them. What matters is that they live in their district.

"The power comes from the personal perspective, the personal message as to why Pitt is important to a person," McManus said. "What moves them [legislators] are the personal stories that they hear from constituents." One item that was heavy on the minds of many people at the May 31 meeting was a plan by Rep. John Lawless (R-Montgomery) to introduce a multi-bill higher education legislative package that includes the elimination of a number of benefits for employees of universities and colleges that receive state funds.

Chief among the benefits that Lawless would like to eliminate is the tuition benefit for dependents and spouses of employees at Pitt and other institutions of higher learning.

While not downplaying the Lawless threat, both McManus and Dykstra pointed out that his bill has not yet been introduced in the legislature and may be greatly altered before it is brought to the House floor. They said the more immediate threat to the well being of the University and its employees is the budget proposed by Gov. Ridge.

"Stick to the budget and higher education when contacting your legislator," Dykstra urged. "Keep it simple and direct. Save Lawless for later. We might have to come back to you for that another time." Speed also is of the essence, according to Dykstra, who noted it is important to contact legislators now, while they are working on the budget. Once the budget comes to the floor for a vote there is usually very little opposition to it.

To assist members of the Pitt community in expressing their support for the University, the Office of Governmental Relations has put together a plan outlining ways to contact local legislators: * Visits. This is the most effective and preferred method of contact. The best approach is to make an appointment with the legislator in his or her district office. Constituents should limit their visit to 15-30 minutes and follow it up with a thank you note that briefly reiterates Pitt's position.

* Letters. Letters should be succinct. Limit them to one page, and not more than two pages, if at all possible. Typewritten letters are preferable, but legible handwritten letters are acceptable. Letters may be Faxed if speed is essential.

Letters should be written on plain or personal stationery. Do not use Pitt stationery or the University's mail system. That takes away the personal element and weakens the effect.

* Phone calls. Calls should be placed to a legislator's district or home office because legislators are normally tied up in meetings when they are in Harrisburg. Legislators are most likely to be in their district at the end of the week because the General Assembly meets Monday-Wednesday. Try to speak directly to the legislator. If he or she is unavailable, leave a message with the legislator's aide. Limit calls to 5-10 minutes and follow up with a thank you note reiterating Pitt's position.

Whatever method members of the University community use to contact their legislator, they should be positive, courteous and reasonable, not combative, and make a point of explaining their Pitt affiliation, such as faculty, staff or alumni, and that they are a constituent.

"Probably the worst thing to ever be toward a legislator is confrontational," said Assistant Director of Commonwealth Relations Kevin Evanto. "They respond to arguments, logical, thoughtful arguments. They don't respond very well to threats or confrontational messages." Further information on contacting legislators, including office addresses, is available by contacting the Office of Governmental Relations at 383-1660; FAX 383-1700; e-mail or on the World Wide Web,

–Mike Sajna

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