State to spend $750,000 to lobby Congress on transportation funding

  • By Jerry Cornfield Herald Writer
  • Monday, August 15, 2011 12:01am
  • Local News

OLYMPIA — While bracing for a new round of budget cuts, the Department of Transportation plans to keep a lobbyist working the halls of Congress in search of federal funds.

Next month, officials expect to award a four-year, $750,000 contract they hope will pay off by funneling back to the state millions of dollars for roads, bridges, buses and ferries.

Five companies are competing for the work, including Denny Miller Associates, which has represented the state agency in Washington, D.C., since 1985. The firm’s current contract, which expires Sept. 15, has paid $1.1 million since August 2004.

The department is the only state agency with a Beltway lobbyist. Gov. Chris Gregoire does have a full-time staff member working there.

State transportation officials aren’t defensive about retaining a lobbyist amid continued government downsizing because it’s aided in receipt of valuable dollars for job-creating projects.

“Over the years, Denny Miller Associates has served as our eyes and ears on the ground and as our representative at meetings and briefings we are unable to attend because of the 3,000-mile distance between the two Washingtons,” Transportation Department spokesman Steve Pierce said.

It’s helped the state prepare for federal policy changes and pursue potential funding opportunities such as in the 2009 stimulus package, he said.

“We’ve had a long and productive relationship” with the department, said Tim Lovain, the firm’s vice president and general counsel. “Our job is to provide early, good intelligence so the department, as best it can, knows what’s coming.”

Washington already garners a hefty share of federal funds for roads and ferries because U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Wash., have long been powerful voices in the appropriations process in their respective chambers. Likewise, Republican Reps. Cathy McMorris-Rodgers and Doc Hastings are seeing their influence rise since their party gained the majority in the House.

Still, the nine members of the congressional delegation cannot be everywhere all the time, agency officials said. The lobby firm becomes a vital conduit of information between the state and its delegation as well as lawmakers in the other 49 states.

Washington isn’t the only state with one or more agencies using lobbyists. An online database compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics shows several states use, or have used, lobbying services on an issue.

It also shows many other cities, counties and special districts around the country — including the city of Everett and the Port of Everett — that contract with lobbyists.

For the Department of Transportation, one of the big dividends came in 2009 when nuts-and-bolts advice on the process from Lovain enabled the state to be one of the first in line to receive funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The state wound up getting $492 million for state highway projects, $179 million for transit, $50 million for aviation and up to $751 million for high-speed rail projects — a portion of which were dollars picked up from money turned down by other states.

Over time, Lovain said, he’s worked to help Washington state lawmakers pass laws benefitting Washington State Ferries.

Two decades ago, it was on a bill pushed by Dicks creating a federal ferry program.

And then two years ago, he aided the efforts of Murray and Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., to push through the Ferry Systems Investment Act that’s intended to create a steadier flow of funds for state-run ferry operations nationwide.

Lovain has also put together a coalition of leaders of large public ferry systems to amplify the voice of those providing maritime transportation.

The firm’s current contract in Washington began Aug. 30, 2004, as a four-year deal worth $624,000. Subsequent amendments and extensions since 2007 increased its total value to $1,098,475.

Not every change added money to the deal.

In July 2009, the state agency pared $52,000 from that year’s portion of the contract. Lovain said the firm volunteered to take the cut though it didn’t reduce its representation.

This time Denny Miller Associates faces competition from four heavy-hitting firms. They are K&L Gates; Chambers, Conlon & Hartwell; Miller/Wenhold Capitol Strategies and Van Scoyoc Associates. The quintet turned in their bids in July.

Information on the contract competition can be found at http://tinyurl.com/statebids.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com.

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