UI Student Senate goes lobbying in Springfield

It’s becoming an Illinois Student Senate tradition to lobby members of the state legislature in Springfield once a year. But those involved in the coordination of this year’s event are hoping it will be a larger and more productive affair than in 2008.

“This year instead of just going over there and kind of making our presence known, we’re going to go over there and make our presence known, but be effective while we’re doing it,” said Paul Schmitt, student trustee and senior in LAS. “Long story short, it’s just that we’ve changed the way it’s being done and it’s probably going to be the best, I think, as far as turnout and effectiveness, that it’s ever been.”

The event takes place April 1, and Schmitt says the itinerary includes a tutorial on effective advocacy as well as possible appearances from Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn and Fighting Illini head football coach Ron Zook. Schmitt said students can still sign up to participate, and also added that the occasion has encouraged University administrators.

“I know President (B. Joseph) White has actually booked this event for his entire day on his calendar,” Schmitt said. “So (University administrators) are really fired up about going over to the capital and really trying to bring it home for the U of I in terms of state support.”

Amy Eichorst is the director of Illinois Connections, an alumni group that is coordinating the event along with the Illinois Student Senate. She said efforts to meet with legislators from all parts of the state have been part of the focus of this year’s event.

“So far, out of 177 legislative districts, we’re trying to set up meetings with 110 legislators,” Eichorst said. “(Local representatives) are already committed to funding the University. What we need to do is get legislators and constituents in other districts to hear that message, hear from their own voters.”

Kevin Semlow, who has professional lobbying experience for the Illinois Farm Bureau, said the effort could be beneficial as long as participants talk to representatives from their home district.

“Coming (to the captial) does definitely make a difference and gets the message out,” he said. “It has a bigger impact if you match up with local legislators, because they’re looking for people that they represent. For local constituents, that face-to-face time makes all the difference in the world.”

But it might take a while to determine just how beneficial these efforts are. University of Illinois spokesman Tom Hardy said the legislative process will require more time for investments in the University to pan out, though the state capital spending bill Quinn announced Wednesday may help University facilities. He added that there is already support in the legislature for the University and higher education in general, but it doesn’t hurt to drive the point home.

“The squeaky wheel gets the oil, as they say,” Hardy said. “So it never hurts to show people in Springfield who are making decisions about resources that the University of Illinois is an extremely valuable asset to this state and to remind them of all the many ways that the U of I benefits the state.”

Schmitt indicated that measuring the success of the lobby day may be tempered by the realities of the state financial situation.

“You have to keep in mind, not getting a huge cut is a major victory this year with the way the state’s economy is,” he said. “If we’re able to hold our own, that’s an enormous success because that means that tuition should be able to remain relatively affordable.”

After Quinn proposed plans for the state budget Wednesday, Hardy said signs of the governor’s commitment to higher education are encouraging.

“As proposed, I think the budget plan is good for the University and thousands of students that attend,” he said. “It provides increased operating funds, includes new money for student financial aid, and it has a new capital spending plan that is long overdue and will provide close to $200 million in funding.”

But while its potential effects might be unclear, those involved in planning are hopeful for the lobby day’s success.

“Even in Washington D.C., I think 140 people coming on one day to lobby is a big turnout,” Eichorst said. “I’m thinking it’ll make a big impact.”