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Lobbyists on the public payroll

Lobbyists on the public payroll

December 2, 2009
December 2, 2009

You may not realize it, but your taxes help pay the salaries of some Statehouse lobbyists. Many pubically funded organizations and agencies contract with outside lobbyists, or send staff members to the legislature, to push their agendas. Among them are city urban renewal districts, school systems, universities and highway districts.

For instance, the Ada County Highway District hires an outside lobbyist to be the agency’s “eyes and ears”. For the 2010 legislative session, the ACHD has budgeted $68,000 for lobbying efforts. The Idaho Freedom Foundation asked spokesman Craig Quintana why it was necessary to hire a contract lobbyist, rather than using an employee or one of the district’s five commissioners. “Our employees obviously have other duties, so we can’t send them to the legislature. Our commissioners are part-timers, and it’s not their forte to be there ‘round the clock, following the session.”

But Commissioner Sara Baker disagrees. “For an organization like ACHD, I think it seems kind of ridiculous that we have a lobbyist, quite frankly. I think that we can do our own lobbying as commissioners, if it becomes important. Or perhaps we could share a lobbyist with somebody just to provide us with information on what’s coming up or what’s happening with a particular bill. But there’s just something wrong about public agencies spending public money on lobbying. I particularly think in hard times like we have now, it’s an indulgence we should not be engaging in.”

So what did ACHD get for your lobbying dollars in the 2009 session? Not much, says Baker. “I didn’t think that we received good value last year. I saw no reports (from the lobbyist); you know, perhaps it went to the staff. If the taxpayers are going to be paying for a lobbyist, the lobbyist I think should be providing regular reports on what they’re doing. Last year, they said our lobbyist only was watching, rather than introducing bills. But even so, there should have been a report. We should have received regular reports. According to the contract, we should have been receiving weekly reports during the legislative session.”

North Idaho College in Coeur d’Alene is another organization which hires an outside lobbyist to be its representitive in Boise. John Martin, Vice President for Community Relations and Marketing at NIC, says the college’s lobbyist is contracted for about $24,000 a year. He says geography was the biggest reason they hired a contractor.

“We’re pretty much isolated up here, closer to Spokane than we are to Boise, closer to Canada than we are to Twin Falls, that type of thing. A lot of people just don’t know who we are other than the name. We have such a short legislative session…90 days for the most part…and things happen so quickly, that having someone on the ground there is really critical. Plus, the fact that she (the lobbyist in Boise) is there year-round, and although we refer to our legislators as part-time legislators, they’re attending meetings in Boise throughout the non-session months. So she’s there, working for us during those times as well.”

But despite the money spent on hiring a lobbyist, NIC didn’t get much of its legislative agenda accomplished in the 2009 session. Martin says legal issues prevented employees from being added to the state PERSI retirement system, and budget realities prevented any funding for building renovations and pay raises. But, he says “We did not take any salary decreases last year, which is pretty good, to hold on to what you have when other agencies are taking salary cuts and losing benefits.”

Some organizations use employees to lobby the legislature. Kent Kunz, the Director of Government Relations for Idaho State University, is posted to Boise year-round. “It’s an ongoing, around the calendar job,” Kunz said. “For instance, in the months between September and the first of January, the executive branch of government is putting together the budget for next year. That impacts higher education in a big way. And so, in this time frame, I attempt to keep higher education from getting bigger cuts.”

Bruce Newcomb, Director of Government Affairs at Boise State, and former Speaker of the Idaho House of Representatives, told the Idaho Freedom Foundation it’s more efficient for an organization to do its own lobbying. “They (BSU) have, in the past, brought in consultants but that hasn’t worked out. Contract lobbyists have many other conflicts, and can’t spend enough time to take care of our business.”

The Idaho Secretary of State's office, which registers and tracks lobbyists, defines "lobbyist" as:
“Anyone who attempts to influence the approval, modification or rejection of any legislation, rulemaking decision, procurement, contract, bid or bid process, financial services agreement or bond issue bycontacting or causing others to make contact with members of the legislature or an executive official.”
You can find more information about lobbyists, who's hiring them, and how they're using your tax dollars, at the Secretary of State’s website.

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