As a resident of University City, I was interested to learn that the city spent $26,000 to hire a lobbyist in Washington, D.C. Through an internship at the Show-Me Institute this summer, I researched the extent to which this practice is used in Missouri; the results were eye-opening, to say the least.
The practice is called intergovernmental lobbying, or taxpayer-funded lobbying. Local government entities such as cities, counties and fire districts hire lobbyists to represent them in Congress and the state legislature. Those lobbyists then vie for a bigger piece of the government’s pie. As the pie grows, however, so do the taxes needed to pay for it.
In the past 18 months, 53 local entities spent more than $2.6 million on contracts with outside lobbyists. This is just a small sample of the hundreds of publicly funded local institutions that can contract lobbyists. This number does not include the lobbyist’s expenses (such as hotel rooms and dinners out with lawmakers) that are paid for with taxpayer money. It also does not include dues paid to lobbying associations, such as the Missouri Municipal League or Association of Police Chiefs, which receive taxpayer funds from member cities or police districts. These associations have been known to lobby for legislation that would close various public records, such as property tax records or police investigation records. So, in that case, Missourians are paying more to know less.
Clearly, this is a problem. So what can Missourians do about it?
In 2010, Missouri Rep. Shane Schoeller, R-Willard, proposed House Bill 1872 that would have banned lobbyists who receive taxpayer money from “advocating” a position while educating lawmakers and monitoring the legislative session. While the intentions were good, the ban would have been difficult to enforce because lobbyists are constantly doing both. The legislation, predictably, stalled in committee.
Because bans have been relatively unsuccessful here and in other states, perhaps a better start would be increasing transparency when it comes to publicly funded lobbying in the state. The Missouri Ethics Commission is charged with monitoring and reporting lobbying activity in the state. However, the data available are incomplete. It tells Missourians little about the entities that hire lobbyists, does not include salaries that those entities pay and does not make a distinction between private and public employers of lobbyists.
The next option is to go to the local government’s website. This can prove fruitless as well. For example, there are 114 counties in Missouri: 54 of them have websites. None of the 54 provides lobbying information online. In reality, if Missourians want to know exactly how much taxpayer money is going to lobbyists, they would have to send hundreds of Sunshine Law requests, some of which would inevitably go unanswered or remain incomplete. The Show-Me Institute collected its information on the subject in this manner and, speaking from personal experience, the process is far from efficient.
The simple step of requiring the Ethics Commission or individual public entity to disclose information about lobbying expenses online would help address the problem in a few ways. First, it would improve Missouri’s overall transparency, which is clouded by minimal lobbying disclosure requirements. Second, it would put the power back in the taxpayers’ hands: no more closed-door deals and secret contracts. Everything would be out in the open. Taxpayers would have access to the information they need to make a decision about whether they support contracting with an outside lobbyist or not.
The issue of intergovernmental lobbying cannot begin to be addressed until the taxpayers are made aware of how their tax dollars are being spent. If local governments continue to keep citizens in the dark about lobbying expenses, the state government will only continue to expand. It is a vicious cycle, with lobbyists advocating increased spending year after year all over the state and no one stopping to think who is footing the bill. Spoiler alert: We are. Taxpayers need to embrace Missouri’s motto when dealing with local governments and say “Show me” regarding lobbying expenses.
Mary Kate Hopkins is an intern at the Show-Me Institute, which promotes market solutions for Missouri public policy. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.