Government lobbying at odds with taxpayer interests

Posted on February 09, 2007 | Type: In the News
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Should citizens foot the bill for lobbyists? One think tank says no.

The publics will and right to petition the government is being trampled by the growing number of taxpayer-funded government lobbyists, according to a new report issued by the Goldwater Institute.

And that unmistakably ensures that taxpayers pay for growth of government regardless of their opinion, writes Ben Barr, as a constitutional policy analyst who was with the Institute. He has since stepped down and accepted a position working for David Mason, vice-chairman of the Federal Elections Commission in Washington D.C.

Government lobbying promotes policies and spending programs favorable to government bodies, writes Barr in Your Tax Dollars at Work: The implications of Taxpayer-funded Lobbying.

It comes as little surprise that these interests are fundamentally at odds with the fiscal interests of taxpayers.

But lobbyists help elected representatives make informed decisions on complex and important issues, say officials and representatives that are using both public and private lobbyists to secure funding or favorable legislation.

Currently there are more than 900 registered lobbyists working for state and local governments, agencies and departments, and not only are citizens paying the bill, but their voices are being muffled, writes Barr.

According to the study, which examined lobbying reports filed with the Secretary of States Office, more than $3 million has been spent by Maricopa, Pima and Mojave counties on lobbying from 2000 to 2005, and the cities of Tucson, Mesa and Phoenix have put more than $2 million of taxpayer funds to lobbying use.

The departments of Transportation, State Parks and the Governors Office have also spent almost $2 million during the timeframe, according to Barrs report, which states the real costs are probably even higher if necessary administrative expenses were included.

You call it lobbying

The report has raised strong objections from the some at the Capitol, including Gov. Janet Napolitano, who disagrees with the premise and blasted the Goldwater Institute for providing bad research with bad data.

You call it lobbying; I call it communicating, said Napolitano, whose office ranked third in lobbyist spending since the year 2000 among the studys listed government agencies. We need to be consistently providing the Legislature, which is a citizen Legislature, with information. They dont know the ins and outs of running DES (Department of Economic Security). They dont know the ins and outs of how we work with the Corrections Department. They dont know the ins and outs of how we work with the federal Department of Homeland Security. The three branches [of government] need to communicate and its those jobs that make it happen.

But Barrs contention that government lobbyists distort democracy by replacing the voice of citizens with that of the state may have some merit, said Bas Aja, head of the Arizona Cattlemens Association.

The Buckeye resident and longtime lobbyist said he recalls being in government committee meetings and competing for legislative favor against dozens of government lobbyists.

And as a trade representative, Aja said he feels that he is still only minimally affected by large numbers of lobbyists working on behalf of governments. For the average citizen, however, he is not sure the effects will be that slight.
If you were a public individual youd be down there on your own dime and your own time taking on your own money in the form of taxpayer funded lobbyists, said Aja, who said he considers the practice a little unsettling.

Strobeck: Lobbyists part of lawmaking

Ken Strobeck, executive director of the League of Arizona Cities and Towns, an organization for 90 of Arizonas local governments, said the studys findings that an annualized cost of about $2 million a year spent by cities and towns to sway legislators is hardly worth noticing given that local governments spent $4.625 billion in 2005.
Two million dollars out of five billion seems like a very reasonable amount to communicate to federal and state governments the issues that are important to cities, said Strobeck, whose group secured $550 million from state coffers for local government use last year despite opposition from several lawmakers.

The organization was criticized in the Goldwater Institute report for working to defeat private property rights measures pertaining to eminent domain and regulatory takings despite overwhelming approval by voters.

The group, to which members pay dues from local tax revenues to benefit from lobbying efforts, is using public funds to openly advocate and lobby for policies that 95 percent of Americans, and in all likelihood Arizonans, disagree with, writes Barr.

In November, citizen initiative Prop. 207, which considerably strengthened private property rights in Arizona, was approved by approximately 65 percent of voters, according to records kept by the Secretary of States Office.
Abandoning the lobbying process, including the use of privately hired insiders, would amount to a useless retreat from a competitive lawmaking procedure that would not serve the public well, said Strobeck.

Eliminating private lobbyists (from working for governments) would be a unilateral disarmament to special interests, he said. It would basically be surrender.

And the law?

Barr states the courts have differed on the appropriateness of governments lobbying activities and he calls for a renewed judicial determination to define whether the spending serves a valid public purpose.

A 1944 decision by the Arizona Supreme Court in City of Phoenix v. Michael, he writes, forbids local governments from expending taxpayer funds to join lobbying organizations such as the Arizona Municipal League, whose mission statement at the time was to secure legislation beneficial to the municipalities of the state.

But a following legal opinion issued by high court in 1948s City of Glendale v. White attacked the Michael decision and ruled that determining the legality of municipal lobbying must be judged on an individual basis, wrote Barr, who argues the fuzzy ruling dilutes the separation of powers of government branches.

The broad change effectively eviscerated the state Constitutions powers to protect citizens from abusive government taxing and spending practices, writes Barr.

But Paul Bender, a constitutional law professor at Arizona State University, strongly disagrees with Barrs arguments.
This report is nonsense, it doesnt show that this [government lobbying] violates the separation of powers and the cases dont hold anything that supports this, said Bender, a former principal deputy solicitor general of the United States.

A ban?

The study notes that moves to reduce or eliminate taxpayer-funded lobbying have occurred in more than 10 states during the last decade, including Texas, Illinois and South Carolina.

In 2006, the Houston City Council withheld a $70,000 membership fee from the Texas Municipal League after determining the group does not assign top priority to taxpayers interests and private property rights, according to the study.

In 2003, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich canceled several lobbying contracts held by the states Department of Transportation and the Illinois Department of Public Aid, which reportedly incurred $150,000 in lobbying expenses within six months.

And in September 2004, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford by executive order prohibited his cabinet from lobbying agencies.

Barr urges Arizona to adopt measures similar to those in Florida, which eliminated state entities from using public money for lobbying purposes.

Such ideas have arisen in Arizona. In June 2005, a ballot initiative committee was officially registered with the Secretary of States Office to combat the practice, but the effort never gained any momentum.

Kenneth Bond, a Mesa resident behind the failed drive, said another effort is underway, but he declined to offer further details.

He said governments and agencies are using lobbyists not to educate, but to ensure they live forever, continue to grow, increase power and decrease accountability and oversight.

Bond strongly praised Barrs report and condemned the idea that governments have a right to lobby on their own behalf.

People say they got to protect their turf, he said. But its not their turf. It belongs to the citizens.

In 1999, Republican House members Jean McGrath, Deborah Brimhall and Jeff Groscost introduced a bill to stop government agencies and political subdivisions from using public funds to participate in private organizations, but the measure was amended and ultimately defeated.

A ban on the practice, which is called for in the report, would not rob government entities from influencing legislators and allow private interests to run amok, said Aja.

It would have the effect of requiring mayors, councilmen and other officials and department figures of coming to the Legislature and doing the job themselves, he said.

What is surprising, said Aja, is that while constant media scrutiny is paid toward private lobbyists, little attention is paid to their public counterparts.

They get a free ride, he said. Theyre pure for some reason.

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