Austin aims lobbying efforts at stimulus funds

City had already increased lobbying spending from $75,000 to $225,000
By Marty Toohey
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF
Sunday, March 01, 2009
Last month, when Austin City Manager Marc Ott talked about improving the condition of the city’s streets, he mentioned the $787 billion federal stimulus package as a likely way to pay for some of it.
Days before, discussions about a proposed city solar project near Webberville wandered into speculation about whether parts of it could be covered by the stimulus plan.
And Austin officials will continue flying to Washington to figure out how, exactly, to get the biggest possible piece of that federal pie.
In short, it’s hard to spend much time in City Hall without hearing about the stimulus package.
“We’re working hard to determine what exactly is in it and what we could qualify for,” said John Hrncir, who, as the city’s director of governmental relations, is responsible for coordinating efforts stretching into most city departments.
In September, Austin was already planning to beef up its lobbying in Washington, with an emphasis on addressing transportation needs and energy efficiency. Hrncir said Austin increased its Washington lobby budget from about $75,000 in 2008 to $225,000 this year.
That money goes to two firms: Barbara T. McCall and Associates, which the city has employed for several years, and Holland and Knight, hired this year.
“Obviously,” Hrncir said, “now that the stimulus package is on the scene, we will use our consulting to help with the process” of getting money from the stimulus package.
The city is not relying solely on its paid lobbyists, though. Mayor Will Wynn was in Washington recently, meeting with federal officials about the energy portions of the stimulus bill. Austin Energy officials have gone to Washington doing much of the same.
Ott has mentioned the increased lobbying efforts while talking about the city’s need to enhance portions of its infrastructure, particularly roads in need of maintenance.
U.S. Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Austin, said early readings of the 1,000-page stimulus bill suggest most of the transportation money is intended for use on major roads, such as state and federal highways. But Doggett said there is some money that could address road maintenance; for instance, Austin will be getting $2 million it could use for things such as street paving and arts festivals, Doggett said.
Doggett said lobbyists can be useful to Austin if they focus on helping the city negotiate the federal bureaucracy on specific issues, such as grant money for roads.
“What I don’t need,” Doggett said, “is a lobbyist going down to the House Ways and Means Committee” trying to sway it.
Doggett said he’s encountered no problems with McCall, who represents eight cities, considers herself more liaison than traditional lobbyist and helped turn a U.S. Conference of Mayors proposal into legislation providing cities grant money for energy-efficiency and conservation programs.
Doggett said he had not heard much about Holland and Knight.
Mike Rosen, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Austin, said he’d heard of no difficulties with Austin’s lobbyists, adding that the stimulus bill progressed so quickly that extra lobbyists could be necessary to maximize Austin’s share.
The city also spends $800,000 to $1 million a year lobbying the state government, Hrncir said.
He said the city is still figuring out what exactly will be available through the stimulus package.
Hrncir reiterated that the city listed a 36-hole Frisbee golf course as a possible stimulus project drawing national ridicule as a result because the U.S. Conference of Mayors asked for every possible project that cities could build.
Hrncir said that list was not a formal application and that the stimulus bill appears to preclude the project.
mtoohey@statesman.com; 445-3673

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