Madison, Wisconsin, USA state capitol building at dusk.
Millions of taxpayers dollars are used every year to hire lobbyists who advocate for policies that often are not in taxpayers’ interest. Taxpayer-funded lobbyists frequently push for higher taxes and larger government. Recognizing this problem, state lawmakers and employers in multiple states are now working to advance reforms that would put an end to taxpayer-funded lobbying.
Taxpayer-funded lobbying for polices that harm taxpayers is even a problem in red, relatively low-tax, Republican-run states, as Texas demonstrates.
“Ethics filings from the 2017 Texas legislative session indicated that about $41 million of taxpayer money was spent by local government to hire lobbyists,” Chuck DeVore, vice president at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, wrote earlier this year. “These lobbyists, virtually without exception, were hired with tax money to advocate against the interests of average taxpayers.”
Texas Representative Mayes Middleton set out to fix this problem during the biennial session of the Texas Legislature that took place earlier this year. Representative Middleton introduced House Bill 281, legislation that would prohibit taxpayers dollars from being used to hire lobbyists. Predictably, local government officials who use taxpayer dollars to hire lobbying teams fought Middleton’s reform, which polling shows enjoys broad public support.
A poll commissioned by the Texas Public Policy Foundation last December found that 91% oppose the practice of taxpayer lobbying, including 80% who strongly oppose it. Despite the popularity of Middleton’s reform, it died in the Texas House Calendars Committee without receiving a floor vote.
In the same 2019 legislative session that Texas lawmakers were considering Middleton’s reform to end taxpayer-funded lobbying, local governments were busy demonstrating how taxpayer-funded lobbyists frequently work against the interests of taxpayers by working in opposition to a property tax relief bill that was ultimately approved.
During a Senate committee hearing early this year on Senate Bill 2, the Texas Senate’s property tax relief bill, it was reported how “taxpayer-funded lobbyists showed up in droves to oppose the legislation while everyday citizen taxpayers unanimously supported the proposal.”
While Middleton’s reform to ban taxpayer-funded lobbying died in committee, the Texas Legislature did approve a bill (Senate Bill 65) requiring local governments to disclose contracts with taxpayer-funded lobbyists. Representative Middleton’s office took action this week to make sure this new requirement is enforced.
This week Representative Middleton sent a letter to every city, county, and school district in Texas, asking them to post taxpayer-funded lobbying disclosures on their website that are now required in accordance with the passage of SB 65, and to also send these disclosures to his office. The newly-required disclosures include the following:
- Contract details such as the execution date, effective date, and length of the contract;
- Cost of the contracts associated with lobby services;
- Cost of the contracts associated with lobby services;
- List of all legislation advocated on, for, or against by all parties or subcontractors the firm hired for lobbying services—including the positions taken on each piece of legislation;
- A copy of the contract used to hire a firm or individual for lobbying services; and
- Disclosure of interested parties for any contracts for services which would require a person to register as a lobbyist.
Local government officials have already responded to Middleton’s request with alarm, with the Texas Municipal League instructing members to treat Middleton’s letter as an open records request. Representative Middleton told Texas Scorecard that the backlash just highlights the “immoral nature of taxpayer-funded lobbying.”
“Our tax money is being spent on Austin lobbyists to advocate against the taxpayer and basic good governance,” said Middleton. “For example, in the last legislative session, taxpayer-funded lobbyists opposed property tax relief, disclosures of what bonds truly cost taxpayers, the constitutional ban on a state income tax, election integrity, and they even opposed the bill to fund and protect our teacher’s retirement pensions.”
Wisconsin Could Be First To Ban Taxpayer-Funded Lobbying
While Texas lawmakers will have to wait until their 2021 biennial session for another chance to pass Representative Middleton’s taxpayer-funded lobbying prohibition, their counterparts in Wisconsin may look to enact this popular reform in 2020.
Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce (WMC), the Badger State’s largest business association, released a new report on Tuesday that makes the case for reforming the way in which taxpayer money is used to pay for third-party advocacy groups and for-profit contract lobbyists.
“While businesses and homeowners are faced with some of the highest property taxes in the nation, local governments are funding private groups to lobby state government for even more taxing and regulatory power,” notes the WMC release on the report.
The new WMC report documents how taxpayer-funded lobbying by local governments has become a large and lucrative business in the Badger State. During the 2017-18 legislative session, notes the WMC report, taxpayer-funded local government groups spent more than $5 million lobbying state government – often for proposals to hike taxes.
“Even though Wisconsin has the fifth-highest property taxes in the country, Wisconsin businesses and homeowners are still facing an ever-increasing tax burden from local governments,” said Corydon Fish, WMC General Counsel and Director of Tax, Transportation and Legal Affairs. “It is especially unsettling that local governments fund private advocacy organizations and contract lobbyists that are not accountable to voters to push unpopular policies – like more taxing authority – at the state level.”
The new WMC report also explains how municipal governments circumvent the democratic process by bankrolling third-party associations, which are not subject to public records and open meetings laws, in order to lobby for politically unpopular proposals. WMC notes that some of these private third-party lobbyists are actually allowed to collect benefits from the Wisconsin Retirement System.
“Reforms to this process are desperately needed to protect local taxpayers,” added Fish. “Taxpayers should know their local governments are working on their behalf, not working against them to implement higher taxes or increased regulations. A more open and transparent system is needed.”
The WMC report recommends Wisconsin lawmakers enact legislation to prohibit taxpayer-funded lobbying when they return to Madison next year. According to available polling, by taking up WMC’s advice on this issue, Wisconsin lawmakers would enact a reform that both protects taxpayers and is very popular with the public.