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GUEST COMMENTARY: Programs use tax money to lobby against transparency

Monday, March 14, 2011 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

I've worked for the Missouri Press Association since 1979. I testified on a bill in the legislature for the first time in 1982. The press association and Missouri newspapers have been involved in every so-called Sunshine Law revision and every effort for increased government transparency since Missouri's Sunshine Law was passed in 1973.

I don't get paid with taxpayer money.

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It's frustrating to argue against opponents of open government who are paid with tax money. This is your tax money, legislative constituents' tax money and my tax money.

Everywhere you turn there's an association whose dues are collected from tax money. Cities pay dues to their association, counties pay dues, school districts pay dues, ambulance districts, fire protection districts, the county clerks, the police chiefs, the county assessors, the county sheriffs, the county collectors. You get the picture.

Do these dues come from the pockets of individuals' private funds? No, the city councils, county commissions, school boards, ambulance boards, fire protection district boards and so on vote to join these associations and pay the annual dues to their respective associations with tax money.

And, in turn, the associations hire individuals to lobby, and often those lobbyists are directed by the associations to testify against and derail open government issues.

The sponsor of House Bill 145, Rep. Shane Schoeller (R-Willard), and 11 House co-sponsors are trying to shed some light on this issue. House Bill 145 would require any entity receiving state funds to publish the name and compensation of each lobbyist employed by the entity and the name and membership dues paid to any other entity.

I'm a believer in free speech, and individuals have a constitutional right to come to Jefferson City and meet with elected officials to present their concerns on issues.

But not on the taxpayer's dime.

Let me list some examples, in no particular order, that have happened in the past couple of decades where public money has been used in attempts to close information to the public.

Public hospitals, built and supported by taxpayers, and their administrators and lobbyists wanted to close various financial records to the public.

Police and law enforcement lobbyists for three or four years running wanted to shield internal investigation reports generated when complaints are filed against police officers. The press association believes the reports should be treated just like any other incident report and available to the public.

The press association went through a tussle with the counties and their lobbyists to keep their annual financial statements easily accessible to the public.

State corrections lobbyists and officials successfully closed information to the public about how Missouri executes death row inmates.

Attempts were made by Missouri county collectors to keep tax records and taxpayer information from the public. This information should be open. Citizens need to know if their neighbors are paying their taxes.

There are other examples I could list.

My point is that public funds shouldn't be used for lobbying against the public.

On the local level, public funds are not supposed to be used for promoting ballot issues such as school bond issues or city or county issues involving taxes.

But in Jefferson City, the public's tax money is being spent to hire lobbyists.

If nothing else, there needs to be accountability to the public on how their tax dollars are being spent by various associations.

If an organization receives sources of taxpayer funding, then it should be required to report funding, and it should be required to report who gets the money, how much they get and for what purpose it's spent on lobbying.

Doug Crews is executive director of the Missouri Press Association in Columbia.


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Comments

Layton Light March 14, 2011 | 6:40 a.m.

While I believe that our representatives should shun the efforts of paid lobbyists, I wonder what voice is there to counter lobbying by the Missouri Press Association? Just because you feel you are on the side of right does not necessarily mean that you are, and it certainly doesn‘t mean that you represent “the public“ in your fight to obtain more and more information. In the dawning of the age of identity crimes I don’t want my government making my personal information public. If I pay my taxes, why should my information be put out there for everyone? Because you think it’s transparent government? And even if my neighbor isn’t paying his or her taxes, I’m assuming my government is prosecuting them for such theft and that information will become public record at that time. Do you think it's possible that one of the reasons MDOC doesn’t want to publish execution procedures might be security concerns? Ultimately, we vote for our representation at most of the levels of government which you complain are using the association lobbyists. If we feel that they are not using the associations to our benefit, it can become an issue during elections. It seems to me that the Press Association is not being driven by concern over open government in supporting this bill, so much as a desire to eliminate its competition. The Fourth Estate is no less immune to the abuse of power than our elected officials are.

(Report Comment)
Ricky Gurley March 14, 2011 | 8:27 a.m.

Layton,

Doug Crews is RIGHT! I don't care if he (The Missouri Press Association) has a Lobbyist or not; that's not the point! He (The Missouri Press Association) isn't paying for that Lobbyist with our tax dollars!

Maybe he does NOT represent the public, but he sure does seem to be a lot more honest about what is happening here than some of the people elected to represent the public are!

The reason your public information should be put out for everyone to see is because it is PUBLIC INFORMATION; despite the fact that you pay your taxes! Just because you pay your taxes does not mean you get to go out here and commit a crime and the government has to shield it from the media for you or cover it up for you...

So you'll know, Layton. We pay the government employee's salaries collectively when we pay taxes. We fund the government collectively when we pay taxes. So, we want to know what we are paying for when we pay taxes! That's called transparency!

As far as the Missouri Press Association's motives go.. I don't really care what they are in this case. It is not always necessary to have pure motives to be right! I think this is one of those times.

Ricky Gurley.

(Report Comment)
Gary Straub March 14, 2011 | 10:55 a.m.

Layton, you won' have to worry much longer as it is becoming obvious that a 'free and open society' is free to close it.

(Report Comment)
Ricky Gurley March 14, 2011 | 1:27 p.m.

Big Muddy,

The problem with outdated laws that are still on the books is; THEY ARE STILL ON THE BOOKS!

Ricky Gurley.

(Report Comment)
Laura Johnston March 14, 2011 | 3:30 p.m.

@Big Muddy's comments have been removed because they don't comply with the Missourian's policy.

Laura Johnston, interactive news editor

(Report Comment)
Layton Light March 14, 2011 | 8:49 p.m.

Mr. Gurley, I believe you owe me an apology. As you failed to read or comprehend my post, you intimated that I had committed a criminal offense, and expected my name to be kept from public record. If you take your time and read it again, I think you will see that I was stating that I HAVE NOT committed any offense, and as such I should have the expectation of privacy from my government. In your zeal to publish your opinion, you have libeled my name by stating that I have.

I’m happy for you Mr. Gurley that things are so black and white in your world that you know what is RIGHT as if it’s an absolute truth, but I’m afraid most things in life are more nuanced and should be viewed from many perspectives. The rights of citizens to know every little thing about their elected and hired employees are one of those nuanced things that do not lend themselves to sweeping laws such as House Bill 145. I’m always suspicious of such sweeping, “top down” legislation and I would think that the Missouri Press Association would be a little more discerning in its support of such a bill brought about by the “small government” Republicans.

Much of the information that Mr. Crews believes should be made public, such as the names of public entities for which any given lobbyist is working, is already available under lobbyist disclosures requires under Section 105.473. 1, RSMo. It might take some digging, but I don’t believe that the lack of “information” is the fly in the ointment of Mr. Crews and the Missouri Press Association. He feels that public entities should be prevented from hiring lobbyists from representing them in legislation that would impede free access to any information that journalists feel should be disclosed, even if our elected officials feel that to disclose such information is not in the best interest of those who they represent. We allow this kind of judgment by our elected officials as a matter of course, and each case should be argued on its merits. If my elected officials decide to pay associations and their lobbyists to protect that local decision making, then they do so with my blessing.

Judging from your post, Ricky you missed my point, so I’ll state it simply. I believe that the purpose of this bill is an effort by the Republican sponsors to weaken local government representation through associations and lobbyists by forcing them to report, in detail, the nature and cost of that representation. Mr. Crews doesn’t want to level the playing field. He wants the other players removed so that those who are represented by the Missouri Press association can advance down the field unimpeded, no matter what their agenda and no matter what the cost.

(Report Comment)
Ricky Gurley March 14, 2011 | 10:39 p.m.

To Layton Light: Part (1)

Well I don't really know what sequence to put the things I want to say in this post in. So, let me do this; first let me get the "rough stuff" out of the way, then end with the complimentary stuff, that way I may demonstrate that I am sincere....

First, I did not libel you. I did not every infer that you had committed a crime. No reasonable person could take this statement to mean that you have a criminal history: "Just because you pay your taxes does not mean you get to go out here and commit a crime and the government has to shield it from the media for you or cover it up for you..."

I think when you put that statement into proper context it simply means that you (nor anyone else) can go commit a crime and expect it not to be a matter of public record. I see nothing libelous about that.

Second, I did not miss the intent of your post. First of all, try to understand something here.. I hate "qualifying my statements", but it may be necessary to give you a better view of where I am coming from. So, understand that I am a Private Investigator. I see, "deal in", and confront situations everyday involving what some people consider "private data" or "privacy issues". One of the things that I think people fail to understand often enough is that there is no "right to privacy". And you really don't have any "privacy" anymore. I think people would be a lot better off if they dispensed with the false notion that they have a "right to privacy". And here is the proof of that; nowhere in the Constitution will you find the word "privacy", and there is a difference between "privacy" and security. Now it is true that you do have a certain expectation of privacy, but that expectation is not determined by you. You have a reasonable expectation of privacy which is dependent upon whether or not you are making an effort to protect your privacy and whether or not society believes that your expectation is reasonable. A hard concept for most people to grasp and an uncomfortable one to have to accept once you have grasped it, I'll admit.

Ricky Gurley

(Report Comment)
Ricky Gurley March 14, 2011 | 10:41 p.m.

To Layton Light: Part (2)

Third of all, the people that have an even more diminished expectation of privacy are our government officials. They are public figures. They work for us. Thus that diminished expectation of privacy is what they trade in to be in the service of the public. They all know this, and it is a choice they make to have the privilege of working for the public.

Our Government Officials should not be paying lobbyists with our tax dollars to hide things from us. That is how I see the gist of this thread. If our Government Officials are doing what they are supposed to be doing, there really is very little that they need to be trying to conceal from us. And if they are not doing what they are supposed to be doing, and they want to try to cover up their "misdeeds"; let them do it on their dime and not ours. That is my opinion on this whole issue.

The fact is that very little is "black and white". But we all have to figure out where we stand on these issues. Now I do not think that there is a single rule that has absolutely no exceptions. But I do think that we have to determine how we feel about the generalities of the rules. And I am just letting you know how I feel in general about this article by Mr. Crews.

Lastly; I do like your method of communication. You seem to be direct, to the point, and not so sensitive that I either have to spend hours trying to figure out how not to "hurt your feelings" or just not communicate with you at all. I think that you are one of the rare people that I can actually have an intelligent discussion with. A great example of sensitive people is the word "ignorant". You'd be surprised at how many people feel offended when someone calls them "ignorant". Probably because they simply don't even know the meaning of the word: "Ignorant - Uninformed or unaware. Not having enough relevant information to make an intelligent decision. Lacking knowledge or comprehension of the thing specified." So, we are all ignorant about one thing or another.. And yet I have people calling me all sorts of vile names because I called them "ignorant"! LOL.

Ricky Gurley.

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire March 15, 2011 | 1:07 p.m.

This much is true. No piece of no branch of no government should be allowed to spend your taxes on lobbying and most certainly not for the purpose of avoiding light.

(Report Comment)

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