Lobbyist helps borough battle for state funds

Posted: Monday, February 18, 2002

In a rapidly shrinking pond, every frog leaps for the last lily pad.

That's the environment in Juneau these days as a once seemingly inexhaustible pool of oil dollars continues to dry up, leaving the future of many proposed projects and programs in doubt.

Indeed, the competition for funding in the 2003 state budget will be intense, warned Mark Higgins, the consultant hired to lobby for the Kenai Peninsula Borough's legislative priorities.

"The fiscal climate dictates everything," he said in an interview Friday. "Everything is done in the context of what money is available and not available and how you spend what money you do have."

It's not precisely Darwinian -- even the fittest of proposals may not survive the cut, if recent statements by lawmakers are to be believed.

Still, when the fiscal climate blows cold, it helps to have a strong voice on the wind.

Higgins was hired by the borough last year and paid $40,000 to lobby on behalf of the proposed private prison. That idea won the nod of state lawmakers, but ultimately failed when borough voters rejected the proposal.

Higgins, however, had made an impression on Mayor Dale Bagley, who determined in January that it would be in the best interest of the borough to rehire Higgins, rather than put the lobbying job out to bid.

Higgins and the borough have entered a new contract that will pay the 16-year veteran lobbyist $50,000 to be the borough's voice in Juneau. The contract runs from Jan. 15 to June 30.

Higgins' day often includes meeting face to face with lawmakers and alerting them to the causes of his clients. That's especially necessary early in a session when legislators are only beginning to familiarize themselves with the annual flood of wish lists from municipalities, agencies, industries, nonprofits -- anyone willing to vie for a piece of the pie.

When his clients travel to Juneau, as borough assembly members did a few weeks ago and as school district representatives will shortly, he facilitates their meetings with lawmakers.

The borough has earned a good reputation in Juneau among lawmakers, Higgins said.

"The borough is one of the most organized groups in the state looking for funding," he said. Projects are categorized well and accompanied by backup materials that put the funding requests in context. "It really helps to have that kind of organization," Higgins said.

Higgins divides his time among state lawmakers, using the three House and two Senate members representing the borough as a starting point and as a resource.

He said he's familiar with their district priorities, as he is with the wishes of the assembly members and their districts.

Higgins also pitches borough requests to the larger audience of lawmakers from across the state who are not as attuned to the peninsula's needs. Most have a general awareness of the issues, he said. His job is to focus their attention.

Early in the session that may mean simply explaining a proposed project. Later, as the session winds down and lawmakers start looking to trade support, there can be a bit of quid pro quo, he said.

"There's some of that going on now," he said.

Alaska is an eclectic state, he said, and that diversity is mirrored in the Legislature, where one can encounter a host of collective and individual perspectives.

Part of his job is to discover what motivates individual lawmakers, see where their interests lie, and find common ground with borough wishes.

As lawmakers go, he runs into all kinds, he said. There are difficult personalities and easy ones, and sometimes the most difficult are the most helpful because they hold powerful positions. Others may be quite likeable, but can't do much for you, he said.

Education is the borough's top priority, and Higgins said he believes schools will see increased funding next year.

"I cannot imagine there won't be an increase," he said.

What he doesn't know, he added, is what form it will take.

The biggest problem for the borough, he said, is the fact that borough schools are classified as urban, when many should qualify as rural.

He's working to change that. The designation makes a great deal of difference when it comes to the formula for divvying up state education funding, he said.

Higgins represents several other clients in Juneau besides the Kenai Peninsula Borough. According to Connie Jeffers, clerk at the Juneau office of the Alaska Public Offices Commission, Higgins' highest-paying client is Veco Corp., which pays him $72,000 a year.

The Alaska Travel Industry Association contracts his services for $49,000, while other clients include Hope Community Resources Inc., $35,000; J.J. Powers Public Relations, $30,000; and Alaska Travel Adventures, $1,000 per year, she said.

In all, Higgins' contracts earn him $237,000 a year.

Higgins said he hasn't had nor does he expect to have any conflicts of interest arising out of his client list. The borough is the only municipality he represents, he said, and his oil and tourist industry clients often have interests in line with those of the borough.

"There is a synergy that actually works to the peninsula's advantage," he said.

The borough also employs a lobbyist in Washington, D.C.

Steve Silver works in the Arlington, Va., office of the Anchorage law firm of Robertson, Monagle and Eastaugh A.P.C. Ed Oberts, assistant to Bagley, said Silver would be promoting the borough's current federal priorities, which the assembly is compiling now.

Silver commonly helps arrange meetings with Alaska's congressional delegation and representatives of various federal agencies for borough officials when they make trips to the nation's capital, according to Oberts.

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