January 23, 2013 Print
    

New Bill Asks: Should Your Taxes Pay Lobbyists?

Can government agencies in Washington use tax dollars to lobby government officials for more tax dollars? Technically no. Existing law states that “no public funds may be used directly or indirectly for lobbying.” But key exceptions allow government agencies to engage in lobbying, though it must be reported to the PDC.

Reps. Matt Shea, Jason Overstreet and David Taylor have introduced HB 1093, which would close some of these lobbying loopholes by allowing only agency officials to lobby (rather than employees or contractors).  Such lobbying would be limited to providing information regarding official agency business, rather than advocating the agency’s position. The bill would also assign personal liability to agency directors who fail to file the required quarterly lobbying statements by fining them $100 per statement and would ban lobbying activities for one year by a state agency that fails to file statements for three consecutive quarters.

These changes would ensure public agencies are not lobbying for bigger budgets and bigger government at taxpayer expense, and that they do not ignore reporting requirements. In 2011, when lawmakers were considering contracting out printing services, the state Department of Printing put out a bid to hire a lobbyist to save the $20 million dollar shop from the budgetary chopping block. The department withdrew its bid in the wake of public outrage, but the example illustrates the problem of allowing public agencies to use taxpayer money to actively lobby lawmakers regarding their own interests.

Many public agencies have also failed to report their lobbying expenses. Freedom Foundation research in 2009 uncovered $4.6 million in lobbying expenditures not disclosed by government agencies, even though it is required by law. Sound Transit failed to file for seven years, hiding more than $800,000 in lobbying. (Read the full Freedom Foundation report.)

Government agencies can be penalized for failing to properly file lobbying reports on time, but the penalty is minimal and fines are paid out of an agency's budget. This means taxpayers not only pay for the lobbying but the penalties as well.

Watch our testimony on HB 1093 at the WA Legislature - 1/24

Government agency lobbying exceeded $6 million in 2009, not including missing or underreported expenditures. Updated totals for 2010, 2011 and 2012 are not readily available on the PDC website without manually combing through individual agency quarterly reports—hundreds of them. The lobbying totals listed for 2011 are deceptively low since they include only reports filed electronically, which show about $200,000 in government agency lobbying.  The $42,000 the Department of Ecology spent lobbying the legislature, for example, is not included since the agency did not file electronically. I was told by a PDC representative that neither public nor private lobbyists are required to file electronically, but the PDC prioritizes private lobbying by scanning and tallying the data for easy viewing by the public.

In the interests of transparency, it would be an easy fix to require all lobbyists and employers to file electronically so that taxpayers can see an accurate, at-a-glance picture of public agency lobbying too, without the deceptively low totals that are currently on the PDC's website. I would guess this would save quite a bit of PDC staff time as well.

Eleven states prohibit state agencies from using public funds to retain a lobbyist. Washington should join them. Several positive effects would result from restricting taxpayer-funded lobbying. First, while deficit woes won't be solved, it would save millions of dollars. Second, it would eliminate the insulting practice of forcing citizens to fund the same lobbyists they may have to compete with in Olympia. Third, we may actually see a lower rate of government spending growth overall.

At a time when families are struggling to make ends meet, we need to demand that our governments cut wasteful and nonessential spending in order to maintain core government services without raising taxes. We should start by firing taxpayer-funded lobbyists.

Author

Amber Gunn

Economic Policy Fellow

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