Is UConn An 800-Pound Gorilla At The Capitol? [Courant]

April 20, 2015

Article as it appeared in the Hartford Courant

HARTFORD — The University of Connecticut not only has unquestioned success on the basketball court, but has scored recent victories at the Capitol as well.

Fresh off a national championship, the women’s basketball team visited the Capitol last week for the annual Husky Day, a day of smiles, handshakes and picture-taking with legislators and the governor.

Off the court, UConn also achieved success at the legislature recently when two bills died in committee that would have subjected the nonprofit UConn Foundation to the state’s Freedom of Information Act.

Several legislators have said that more transparency is needed at the state’s flagship public university. But top UConn officials testified at two public hearings that subjecting the foundation to FOI laws would expose the names of donors who prefer to remain anonymous. Legislators said an exception could be made for donors who wish to remain out of the public spotlight.

In the end, UConn won the argument as the bills never came to a vote in two committees from a lack of support among legislators.

But the issue isn’t over, as Senate Republican leader Len Fasano said the matter will be raised again as an amendment in the Senate before the legislative session adjourns on June 3.

Lawmakers have raised questions about how money is spent by the foundation, including salaries and expenses. That includes the foundation’s 2013 purchase of a three-story, 12-room house on Scarborough Street in Hartford’s West End and its payment of more than $250,000 to former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for a speech she gave on the Storrs campus.

The foundation also paid for Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s economic development trips to China and the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, in 2012.

“We should all know where that money goes,” Fasano said in an interview. “I want to know where all this money is going.”

Derek Slap, the former chief of staff for Senate Democrats who is now the UConn Foundation’s spokesman, said the foundation will continue to press its case.

“We’re not taking anything for granted,” Slap said. “The bipartisan decision of both committees says a lot. The members listened to hours of testimony from donors, from students, from other foundations. They determined that these were not bills that should be advanced.”

One of the bill’s chief proponents, Sen. Michael McLachlan of Danbury, said he will continue working on the measure behind the scenes and raise it again despite the resistance from UConn and its supporters.

McLachlan said one of the key factors in UConn’s continuing success at the Capitol is the large number of alumni in the legislature, including 13 of the 36 senators and 20 of the 151 House members.

But Slap disputed that notion.

“I don’t think you have to be a UConn alumni to understand how important the university is to the state of Connecticut — in helping the economy and helping to address the brain drain,” Slap said. “That’s not just an alumni issue. That’s an issue for everybody.”

Rep. David Alexander, a graduate of UConn’s law school, said legislators are sometimes divided over the university depending on where they live. Lawmakers in areas that don’t have any UConn branch campuses are less prone to supporting the university, he said.

“I do feel a rift among legislators who went to UConn and are passionate and ones who didn’t,” said Alexander, an Enfield Democrat. “Some people who don’t really have UConn as a presence in their district are hesitant.”

Alexander said he believes the FOI legislation was not focused on donors so much, but on questions about the way the foundation spends its money.

“I’m not against FOI, and I want full openness on government issues,” Alexander said, “but if you’re a nonprofit, you should be treated as one. They shouldn’t be treated any differently than any other nonprofit.” Other nonprofit organizations outside the state government are not subject to freedom of information laws.

One of the biggest supporters of the FOI bills, Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Salisbury, co-chairwoman of the higher education committee, said she was surprised that there was not more support for the bill.

“I just was really surprised when we finally sat in the hearing and people, instead of asking them hardball questions, were asking softball questions,” Willis said.

UConn brought two high-level donors to the hearing to make the point that they do not want to break the momentum from the record-setting fundraising total of $81 million in the last fiscal year.

“Donors want the utmost confidentiality,” said Shari G. Cantor, a UConn alumna, parent of a UConn student and a member of the university’s board of trustees. “It’s critical to the success of the foundation.”

Philip Lodewick, former chairman of the foundation’s board of directors, agreed that increased public scrutiny could scare away donors.

“It may have a chilling effect,” Lodewick said.

Over the past 20 years, the legislature has approved programs under several governors and House speakers that have transformed the university by spending billions of dollars. Those include the UConn 2000 and UConn 21st Century projects, along with the Next Generation projects for $1.5 billion under Malloy.

In addition, the legislature passed an $864 million package in 2011 to expand the medical and dental schools, as well as build a new hospital tower on the UConn Health campus in Farmington. The legislature has also bailed out UConn Health four times since 2000 when operating expenses ran short at the end of the fiscal year and the legislature provided millions to plug budget holes.

Rep. Ed Jutila, the co-chairman of the government administration committee, opposed the FOI bill, but said that attending UConn as an undergraduate and law student were not overriding factors in determining his position.

“I’d like to think that I would be thinking the same way about it whether I was a UConn alum or not. But I am one,” Jutila said. “I’d like to think I’d look at it objectively.”

He said he believes the large number of UConn alumni in the legislature does not have a huge impact on issues facing the university. Jutila joined with other committee members in a voice vote to prevent the FOI bills from being added to the agenda.

“For an issue of this significance, where there are passionate voices on both sides of the issue, I don’t think it would be appropriate to add an item to the agenda and not giving both sides a chance to talk to their legislators as they are walking into the meeting,” Jutila said. Lobbyists on the FOI issue would have been “all hanging around outside those doors if it was on the agenda, and it wasn’t.”

Sen. Joe Markley, an Amherst College graduate who received a master’s from Columbia University, said he never paid attention to where various legislators went to college. But he said that it can be lonely voting against UConn, as he found out as one of the few senators voting no in a 29-5 vote in 2013 against UConn’s $1.5 billion, 10-year expansion program targeting students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

“UConn is one of the most favored institutions up here, and people have a hard time voting against it,” said Markley, a Southington Republican. “That’s a function of the popularity of the university statewide. UConn, as a brand, is very popular in Connecticut. There has been a feeling of: I can’t vote against UConn.”