D. Dowd Muska


Paying the Bills for Big Government’s Shills

December 15, 2011

In December, wish lists aren’t just for kids.

Right now, thousands of public-sector entities -- mosquito-abatement districts, water and power “authorities,” school boards, colleges and universities, small towns, big cities, urban and rural counties, and entire states -- are dreaming of goodies to come, not on December 25th, but in the new year.

You’re probably resting and reuniting with family during the holidays. For the lobbyists who “represent” local and state governments, there’s important prep work to be done.

Round two of the 112th Congress convenes on January 17th. Forty-six states will hold legislative sessions in 2012, with most beginning in January. (Residents of Texas, North Dakota, Nevada, and Montana can relax. Their lawmakers aren’t scheduled to meet until 2013.)

Taxpayer-funded lobbying takes many forms. Best known are the “membership” associations that enjoy both significant resources and beachheads in D.C. In a 1998 report, the Capital Research Center investigated the cabal’s “big seven”: the Council of State Governments, National Governors Association, National Conference of State Legislatures, National League of Cities, U.S. Conference of Mayors, National Association of Counties, and International City/County Management Association.

“Ostensibly these groups help states and local government officials do a better job,” wrote author Sarah Foster. “But such ‘help’ includes instructing elected and appointed officials and bureaucrats in the fine arts of increasing tax revenues, expanding the police powers of government and developing new regulations, ordinances and statutes on every subject imaginable.”

The large, national organizations have been around for decades. More recently, nonfederal governments decided that their “trade associations” were inadequate. Individual attention was needed to secure loot. So contracts were signed with Washington’s hired guns. In 2006, BusinessWeek observed that “a niche lobbying business has sprouted to steer [earmark] money to local interests.” A December 2008 paper by Americans for Prosperity, using data from the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), showed that local governments increased their budgets for advocacy in D.C. by 160 percent between 1998 and 2007.

According to CRP calculations, in 2010, the municipalities that spent the greatest sums lobbying fedpols were Chicago, Sacramento, Phoenix, San Francisco, and Houston. But much smaller burgs palm-greased Uncle Sucker, too. Draper City (Utah), Arvada (Colorado), Moline (Illinois), and Galena (Alaska) each disclosed tens of thousands of dollars in lobbying expenses. Looking ahead, a few weeks ago Baldwin County, Alabama presented $575 million in appropriations requests to its Washington rainmakers. The list, reported the (Mobile) Press-Register, included “funding for [an] industrial mega site purchase, [the] Baldwin Beach Express project, a countywide watershed study, and Wolf Bay Bridge construction.”

State governments are the middlemen in the race for “intergovernmental” revenue. Based on their CRP-documented lobbying bills, leading the pack in 2010’s federal grant-seeking were Pennsylvania, Nevada, New York, Hawaii, and Delaware. But state capitols are themselves pressed for cash. In 2010, the Pacific Research Institute found that spending by “municipalities, counties, regional authorities (including transportation, waste management, water, and recreation), and state and regional commissions, constituted 16.8 percent of the total lobbying in California in 2007 and 2008 ($92.6 of $552.6 million).”

Subsidized commissions -- boards that claim to speak on behalf of industries, minorities, women, homosexuals, and the disabled -- are curious creatures. They exist to influence government at their own level. What’s worse, they’re tough to kill. The New York Times explained that despite their “arcane names” that “often prompt dismissive jokes,” the commissions are supported by “vocal constituencies.” Efforts to kill them are usually unsuccessful -- after all, the power to appoint members “gives governors and lawmakers a means to reward supporters.”

Of all the mouthpieces for limitless government that taxpayers are forced to support, the worst are a blue-state specialty: advocacy organizations cloaked as academic institutions. California’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, with franchises at UCLA and Berkeley, issues a steady stream of pro-union propaganda disguised as economics. The Nutmeg State’s government university has the Connecticut Center for Economic Analysis, which tells the liberal politicians who fund it that their high-tax, big-spending habits are enlightened. In addition to “studies,” the left-leaning policy shops constantly supply biased quotes to reporters who are too dumb to realize that their interviewees are not impartial scholars, but ideological partisans.

With governments at the local and state levels facing financial crises nearly as severe as Washington’s, it’s past time to pull the plug on the use of public revenue to swell the public sector.

A new year’s resolution for the fiscally conservative: Ask your city councilmen, county commissioners, and state legislators where they stand on taxpayer-funded lobbying.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. Follow him on Twitter @dowdmuska.

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