Archive for Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Contract lobbyists tax taxpayers

October 31, 2007

Recently, The Topeka Capital-Journal reported Topeka Unified School District 501 had hired a contract lobbyist. A board member said, "We need somebody desperately -- all the major school districts have somebody there."

The school board member was referring to having someone lobbying on the district's behalf at the Kansas State Capitol. USD 501 selected a representative to join the growing ranks of school lobbyists that include the Kansas Association of School Boards, Schools For Fair Funding -- the group that successfully sued the state for $800 million -- and others representing large local school districts.

Historically, local units of government have paid dues to a statewide association that would represent their interests. In the case of school boards, it was the Kansas Association of School Boards that carried their "water" in the statehouse.

However the current trend is for local units of government (including school districts) to pay dues to an association AND hire their own lobbyist. In the case of USD 501, they are paying dues to the Kansas Association of School Boards and now have committed $36,000 to a contract lobbyist for enhanced representation.

USD 501 chose a lobbyist highly skilled in the legislative process -- a former speaker of the House, at that. As the district's legislative liaison, he will represent the school district extremely well.

Unfortunately, the list of registered government lobbyists has been rapidly growing. The Secretary of State's Legislative Lobbyist Directory shows nearly 80 lobbyists were employed to promote local government's various special interests to lawmakers in 2007.

Many Kansans equate contract ("hired gun") lobbying with large corporations and few are even remotely aware their tax dollars are spent to influence legislators. Government lobbying has existed for years and is restricted only by the amount of tax money a local government is willing to spend.

Government lobbyists are not necessarily a bad thing. There are times a lobbyist can provide valuable information to lawmakers. In a hectic, fast moving legislative session, good information is paramount to making good legislation and a balance of information is essential in achieving the best solution. As director of governmental affairs for the Kansas Press Association, I lobby the Kansas Legislature as well.

However, 80 government lobbyists can easily disrupt the balance of information in the legislative process. Their sheer number and ability to quickly organize mean local government officials can inflict tremendous pressure on lawmakers.

--------Local government's agenda may not necessarily reflect the will of the people. Issues involving taxation/spending, annexation of private property and even open meeting/open records training for governmental officials are recent examples where local government's views were in conflict with those of the people.

While the people's interests are best served by more "openness" in government, local government often attempts to "close" it. It's not uncommon for government lobbyists to promote an agenda that would further limit/restrict public access to meetings, information and records.

Ironically, while government lobbyists work to "close" government to the people, they are compensated -- usually extremely well -- with money derived from your tax dollars.

With 80 lobbyists employed to represent local units of government, who then represents the will of the people?

The magnitude of the issue was made clear when the USD 501 school board member said, "We need somebody desperately -- all the major school districts have somebody there."

This statement reflects the attitude of many local government officials. Whether it is a school district, city or county government, representation by a statewide association is no longer enough.

When does it all end? Are there ever going to be "enough" government lobbyists?

-- Richard Gannon is director of governmental affairs for the Kansas Press Association

Commenting has been disabled for this item.