(Note: The following is an unedited and slightly modified version of a column in Sunday’s News Sentinel.)
It wasn’t exactly surprising last week when not a single member of a House subcommittee would endorse the idea of prohibiting the use of taxpayer dollars to pay for lobbying, which often involves how taxpayer dollars should be spent.
Indeed, the only surprise was that a legislator, namely Democratic Rep. Gary Moore of Nashville, would have the audacity to introduce such a proposal. The bill would have covered expenditures for lobbying that came either “directly or indirectly” from taxpayer dollars.
That’s a pretty broad brush. Apparently, it would have encompassed the Tennessee Municipal League and the Tennessee County Services Association, which represent, respectively, city governments around the state and county governments around the state.
TML and TCSA are partially funded by a “dues assessment” on all member counties and cities, and those dues come from taxpayer dollars, based on a formula – last time checked – that was based on population of each county and city. Both organizations lobby actively, though they also engage in many other activities that cost money. But, indirectly at least, they spend taxpayer dollars lobbying for taxpayer dollars.
A bunch of cities and counties, further, contract with individual lobbyists to watch out for their interests in Legislatorland. The City of Knoxville, for example, has paid the able Tony Thompson an annual $50,000 fee for years — going back to the administration of former Mayor Victor Ashe and continuing under Mayor Bill Haslam.
Moore’s bill would have excluded government staff employees from the ban on lobbying paid through taxpayer dollars. Thus, if Thompson was designated as holding the staff position of “legislative liaison” for the city, with a taxpayer-funded salary, he would be exempted and could continue his lobbying-for-Knoxville duties – just as could Mayor Bill Haslam, any member of city council or anyone else on the city payroll.
Of course, that likely could require that he give up other lobbying clients. Most of the top “hired gun” lobbyists have multiple contracts. And some pay better than cities.
The legal definition of lobbying, under state law, basically says that you are lobbying when you accept compensation for the purpose of influencing the outcome of legislation, or administrative action. Then you are required to register as a lobbyist. Unless, of course, you are being paid as a staff member of a taxpayer-funded entity.
That exemption for taxpayer-paid staff has been the standard in state law for years and there are many unregistered lobbyists as a result.
The governor has a whole herd of lobbyists – officially called “legislative liaisons,” of course – that need not declare themselves lobbyists. They lobby for the interests of the governor, overall, and for each department of state government. The state Supreme Court, through its Administrative Office of the Courts, has an unregistered lobbyist. The University of Tennessee has an unregistered lobbyist. And so on.
Last week, WTVF-TV of Nashville did a report questioning whether TVA has lobbyists. Why, no, the TVA folks said, they have only a “valley relations” staff of six people or so, assigned to communicate with public officials and perhaps expend a few dollars on TVA credit cards in doing so.
Indeed, virtually every entity drawing upon taxpayer dollars (or ratepayer dollars in the case of TVA, utility districts, natural gas distributors and the like) has a lobbyist one way or the other.
And that’s to be expected. When branches of government interrelate, you have to expect someone not volunteering his or her services to conduct communication exercises.
The contract lobbyists may actually save taxpayers money, as opposed to having a staffer on salary as a lobbyists. And the contact lobbyist must register, with his or her name, client list and picture posted on the Tennessee Ethics Commission website for anyone to look up.
The salaried staff lobbyist – while well-known to legislators and the state Capitol crowd – is off the radar insofar as disclosure to the general public goes.
Maybe they’re even better than salaried lobbyists. After all, these are free enterprise guys and gals, competing for clients with one another in marketing influence-peddling skills. Is not that better than the much-disdained government bureaucrat lobbyist?
How effective are they? Well, the subcommittee that Moore brought his ban bill is composed of an equal number of Republicans and Democrats – often prone to split their votes on a bill. But not a single one would make the necessary motion for passage of Moore’s bill.
In other words, they had been lobbied so well that legislators of both parties, rural and urban, black and white, all united to stand up for taxpayer-funded lobbying. How could one expect more effective lobbying than that?
Yes, taxpayers are doubtless getting their money’s worth in hiring lobbyists to lobby for taxpayer dollars. Or would that be money’s less.
As with many things, that probably depends on perspective.