On the radar: Gov’t Relations watches for blips at General Assembly

Catherine MacDonald
Managing Editor

A House amendment to a bill that would mandate health insurance coverage for telemedicine services was agreed to by the Senate Tuesday, finalizing the legislation’s passage through both bodies.
While Senate Bill 675 might seem like it has little to do with campus life at VCU, its passage is considered a success for the university.
That is because as one of the nearly 500 bills the university has been tracking this General Assembly session, telemedicine services is just one example of the myriad types of legislation VCU’s Office of Government Relations works to pass, amend or kill.
Mark Smith, the assistant vice president for government relations, said VCU’s interests range from student concerns on financial aid to employee and retirement issues and everything in between.
“There are many times where you’ll find me sitting at a public safety subcommittee and you would think, ‘Why is higher education there?’ ” Smith said.
“Well, we do have a police department; those employees need to know and hear what’s going on with the legislation that will impact them doing their job.”
Don Gehring, vice president for government relations, said bills concerning gun laws are of major interest to the university. He said when it comes to such laws, the university takes the position that it should be able to control the security of its own facilities.
“Parents expect a safe environment; they don’t expect that people will be carrying guns around, other than law enforcement, in our buildings,” Gehring said.
Gehring said his office reviews every piece of legislation each session, and highlighted two methods that allow the university to determine which bills to track: a system of networks outside VCU and what he and his colleagues call a “bucking” system.
The Office of Government Relations exchanges information with an extensive network that includes representatives from private companies and other types of lobbyists. For example, Gehring said representatives from universities and community colleges get together every Wednesday for a meeting they call a brown bag lunch, which is coordinated by the State Council of Higher Education.
“People just talk through the legislation—‘OK have you seen this bill, are you in favor, how does this impact you, have we not thought of something?’ ” Gehring said.
The bucking system is orchestrated within VCU.
“Let’s say, ‘We have retirement bills.’ We send them down to human resources and get an evaluation from people there,” he said.
After getting an initial reaction from human resources, Gehring said his office would then try to check with other components of the university.
“This is such an interesting and diverse place, so one part of the family may think it’s a good bill, another part of the family might think it’s bad,” he said.
“We have to get everybody’s thought process together to decide whether, as a university, we need to respond, and if so, what position we take.”
After consulting with its outside networks as well as groups within the university, representatives from the Office of Government Relations work with the bills’ sponsors to show support or opposition or amend the legislation.
Smith said he and his colleagues try to be strategically coercive, yet, amicable when they approach bills’ sponsors.
“Instead of going to a legislator and saying, ‘We don’t like your bill and we want to kill it,’ we go to them and explain the implications and then suggest to them ways they can amend the bill to accomplish what they’re trying to do without causing adverse impacts on us and the students and the employees,” Smith said.
This spring is Gehring’s 29th session of the General Assembly. He said usually by this point, the office has reached a resolution on most of the bills it tracks.

“People work with you,” Gehring said. “They compromise and we compromise, and usually something we can live with comes out.”
Smith and Gehring both said this year has worked out well in terms of VCU’s legislative interests.
“This year we are very fortunate,” Smith said. “There are a lot of years I can tell you that VCU and higher education as a whole find themselves down there to the last hour and to the last minute in the General Assembly, but most of things seems to be falling in our favor this year in terms of the legislative proposals.”

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply