Sunday, April 18, 2004

Congress will be hearing from us

Group determined to share in federal pie

By John Byczkowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer

When he started lobbying in Columbus for a law to help Cincinnati's high-tech community, technology consultant Rich Kiley had to get used to people looking at him as though he had two heads.

That's because he was from Cincinnati. Kiley said policy makers so rarely see anyone from here lobbying for anything, they didn't know what to make of him.

""The commentary was, 'This is the first time we've seen this, and we're glad to see you're part of the state,' " said Kiley, a former Procter & Gamble executive.

It's much the same in Washington. This week, the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce takes a step toward improving Cincinnati's visibility on Capitol Hill.

On Wednesday, the chamber leads its first delegation of about 80 community and business leaders to Capitol Hill for a day of face time and schmoozing. The purpose is to get as much for the region out of Washington as others get.

The business leaders will meet with elected officials and agency executives to lobby on behalf of local issues such as funding to replace the Brent Spence Bridge and tax credits to help remake Fountain Square downtown.

"We need to do a better job of informing our elected officials about what's important to us," said Doug Moormann, the chamber's vice president of government affairs. "We need to do a better job of speaking with a single voice."

That hasn't always been the case. Several years ago, when the University of Cincinnati began seeking federal money to help rebuild its medical sciences building, Rep. Rob Portman said city and Hamilton County officials didn't even know about it. The UC project was important because better labs meant more federally funded research and more jobs.

"I'm not sure that the university or the city or the region looked at it as something that had to be coordinated," said Portman, R-Terrace Park. Getting everyone on the same page has helped land more than $8 million, with another $5 million requested.

The belief is there's more where that came from - for more projects.

"You go to some cities, San Antonio for example, they've got waterways named after former congressmen who've just rained down money on the city," said Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken. "I'm not embarrassed about going after money - call it pork, call it whatever. I think if other cities are going to get it, we ought to do what we can."

Squeaky wheels get greased

Lobbying trips aren't unusual for other Ohio cities. This spring, the Dayton Development Coalition will lead a similar delegation on its 20th trip to Washington. The big priority for Dayton, year in and year out, is maintaining Wright-Patterson Air Force Base as an important military installation.

Each trip, the group spends one day at the Pentagon and one day on the Hill. "We go there as a group, speak with one voice" to the region's representatives and other government officials, said J.P. Nauseef, the coalition's chief operating officer.

Does it pay? In 1997, the Air Force wanted to close the Air Force Institute of Technology in Dayton, thinking its officers could get graduate degrees in engineering and management from civilian universities. Local pressure helped get that decision reversed in 1998, and subsequent decisions have strengthened the institute.

As a result of the coalition's annual trips, "the Pentagon knows them very well," said Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio.

Cleveland is just as organized. It seemed that every time Kiley paid a visit to Columbus, "somebody from Northeast Ohio was either there yesterday or coming tomorrow," he said. "The day you don't show up is the day the other side" gets what it wants.

Those are lessons not lost on the Cincinnati chamber, which sought advice from the Dayton Development Coalition in arranging this trip.

It's not the physical act of traveling to Washington, however, that makes the effort worthwhile, local legislators say. It's the process of setting priorities that can pay off, even if no one makes the trip.

"One of the things that Cincinnati has to do ... is make sure that there's agreement on what the priorities actually are," said Rep. Steve Chabot, R-Cincinnati.

He agreed it's not something the city has always been good at. "I think sometimes there is disagreement and sometimes it's the city and the county that may not agree, and you've got to deal with Kentucky," he said.

DeWine, a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, explained it this way: "If they're going 18 different ways, how do we in Congress know how to react?

"I encourage the local community to kind of present a coherent plan. That makes our job a lot easier."

Who'd have thought, for instance, the city could have found money for the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center from the Army Corps of Engineers?

"Sometimes if we know what the goal is, we can pick and choose where to get that money, as long as we know that far enough in advance," DeWine said.

The opposite happened on a light-rail rapid transit system. With substantial sections of the community opposed, no plan was funded.

"Light rail was an example where the community wasn't in agreement, and I think we did lose out" on funding for transportation, said Chabot, who opposed the plan.

The group's agenda

The chamber trip aims to show the region agrees on at least some issues. Making the trip Wednesday will be 40 representatives of the chamber and 40 people from the Young Presidents Organization, made up of the under-40 CEOs of private companies and their spouses. They'll have lunch with Commerce Secretary Donald Evans and get campaign and issue updates from pollsters and representatives of the Bush and Kerry campaigns.

But the meat of the trip will be visits with local representatives and key government officials. The entourage will break up into groups and venture to offices on Capitol Hill with a list of priorities.

Chief among them are:

• Brent Spence Bridge - Replacing the aging span over the Ohio River will cost $750 million or more, and getting federal money will mean engaging politicians from Ohio and Kentucky. Some money is allocated for the project, but raising the bridge's profile on a federal level will help to get more.

"We will certainly express our gratitude for the $7 million that's authorized in the House version of the (transportation) bill," passed in March, Moorman said. "We'll encourage a higher figure in conference committee." Getting the Brent Spence onto a list of "projects of regional and national importance" will also put it in line for more generous funding.

• New market tax credits - The private downtown development group Cincinnati Center City Development Corp. (3CDC) has applied to the Department of Treasury for $90 million in tax credits to help fund a face-lift for Fountain Square. Last year, Treasury awarded $3 billion in these tax credits, but cities nationwide filed applications worth $15 billion.

This year, the competition is even greater.

• More money for transportation - Ohio drivers buy a lot of gasoline that contains ethanol, which is taxed at a lower rate than regular gasoline. Because of that, the state gets less than other states in federal transportation dollars - a difference of $160 million less a year, Portman said. The chamber group will lobby to change that formula and get more for Ohio.

The group also will lobby on behalf of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, making estate tax cuts permanent, changing the alternative minimum tax and easing the region's air-quality regulation.

John Hayden, CEO of Midland Co. and chairman of the chamber's government affairs committee, is confident the group will make an impression. "

Luken, who served one term in Congress, said he's just glad to see Cincinnati in the game. "When I was in Congress, Cincinnati just didn't feel the need to do that kind of outreach."


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