By Lis Stewart
Featured Image: taken by Spencer Nitz at the Higher Ed rally on Feb. 3
You see them everywhere at the Utah State Capitol, hanging around on the Rotunda or outside the main doors to the House and Senate chambers. They mill about, talking and writing notes, or just pacing, all in hopes of catching just a few moments of a legislator’s time. They are the lobbyists.
And every week, a small yet determined group of Utah State University students drives down from Logan to lobby at the Capitol building for higher education– more specifically, USU. These 12 students, many of whom just heard there was a class for lobbying and spontaneously applied, are part of USU’s Government Relations Council (GRC). Credit can be earned like a regular class.
“We represent the student body to the state legislature and others,” explains Tyson Hall, the GRC’s lobbying chair. This year the focus of the GRC is to make sure student voices are heard in the legislature so they can continue to have proper funding and make sure quality teachers get compensated, Hall says. In past years the push for USU lobbyists has been limiting the amount of budget cuts to higher education, adds USU lobbyist Ben Wilson. This year it’s about raising the budget. Wilson is a political science senior who has been lobbying for USU for three years.
What does a lobbyist do? A lobbyist is someone who represents a group of people with the same interests and then meets with legislators on behalf of that group to advise them on bills they would like to see passed. They exist in not just state legislatures, but Washington, D.C. as well. Lobbying groups have great power to influence what bills get passed into law. In Utah, education has one of the biggest mouths when it comes to legislation. It’s easy to see why. According to a recent Deseret News article, one of the most powerful lobbying groups in the state is the Utah Education Association. Additionally, 121 education bills were filed this session, and 19 of them deal with higher education.
A typical day at the Capitol includes setting up interviews with representatives and senators and then meeting with them, Hall says. Generally, the USU lobbyists are well received. “Legislators love it,” elaborates Hall. “They see the value in having a voice on student issues, and see the value in getting a good education.”
There’s also another reason the lobbyists from USU are so well-liked at the Capitol — Aggie Ice Cream. Hall laughs a little as he says, “Every time we meet a legislator they ask when Aggie Ice Cream day is going to be.” Each year during the legislative session, the GRC brings the famous USU ice cream for all the legislators. He says Aggie Ice Cream is coming to the Capitol Rotunda Feb. 22.
The student lobbyists are just as enthusiastic about their cause as the legislators are about hearing from them. “It is a phenomenal experience,” Wilson raves. “The best part is realizing there is not a huge distance between us and representatives.”
Erica Haycock, a senior in political science, agrees. “I didn’t know legislators are so accessible. They email, text, etc. They want to hear from you.” Because of the ease of access to legislators, the GRC has found their efforts make a difference. Freshman Abbie Bingham, another USU lobbyist and pre-med major, says the students who come up to lobby for USU are very effective. Legislators are sure to ask them a lot of questions to know more about what is important to higher education students, she says, adding that they tell examples and give presentations about how funding affects them personally.
It’s relatively easy to get involved with the USU lobbyists, though they had to cap it at 12 people this year to keep the group small enough to be effective, Wilson explains. Bingham and Haycock, who are both lobbying for the first time this session, say they heard about it through Facebook. Lobbying for USU has turned in to a rewarding learning experience for all, though it’s not always in future career plans. “Before this whole experience I had never been to the Capitol building,” Bingham said. “But I’m interested in political science.”
USU is not the only school sending students to lobby up at the Capitol. Nearly every public institution of higher education in the state sends lobbyists to Capitol Hill at some point during the session. The difference between other school lobbying groups and the GRC is they are more organized, says Haycock. Hall adds that the GRC is so unique in having the power that it does. He says, “There is so much gratitude in knowing you are making a difference in other students’ lives.”