Anyone who says talk is cheap hasn't hired a lobbyist lately.
Arizona governmental bodies know this well. They've been using millions of taxpayer dollars to pay lobbyists for years. Whether its fighting against tax cuts or for more government spending, government lobbyists are a powerful bunch.
Taxpayer-funded lobbying that is, government bodies lobbying other government bodies leads to fundamental problems in a free society. Government lobbyists crowd out the voice of regular Arizonans, and the practice itself grows government at a dizzying pace.
Registered government lobbyists outnumber legislators 10 to 1. Maricopa County has 85 registered lobbyists on call, while Tucson manages to get by with a mere 71. With so many government lobbyists crowding the field, one wonders how the average citizen stands a chance of being heard at the Legislature.
A legislators available time is finite. As you add more government lobbyists to the roster, you limit citizens access to legislators. Heres the rub: the United States and Arizona constitutions expressly protect the right of citizens, businesses and civic organizations to petition their government. When government bodies send lobbyists to the Legislature, they take up the valuable face time that could be used by citizens and private organizations instead.
Besides the constitutional implications, the end-consequences of taxpayer-funded lobbying aren't desirable. Permitting government to lobby itself is like letting a class full of kindergarteners decide how many cookies to eat out of the cookie jar. Nine times out of 10, theyll eat up every last crumb. And so it goes with taxpayer-funded lobbying. By its very definition, government lobbying promotes the interests of government bodies, not taxpayers. Of course government bodies would rather have more government spending instead of tax cuts. They'll just keep asking for more, and were left with the tab.
Besides inflating their own government budgets, taxpayer-funded lobbyists are expensive. Government bodies spent more than $10 million from 2000 to 2005 on lobbying. Maricopa County, Tucson and the Department of Transportation are three of the biggest spenders. ADOT alone spent $1.3 million in that period.
Not only are they pricey, government lobbyists often work against legislation that average citizens support. Last year, nearly every Arizonan agreed that sensible eminent domain reform was in order in the wake of the United States Supreme Court decision in Kelo. More than 30 states accomplished this through their legislatures. In Arizona, however, meaningful legislation stalled. The League of Arizona Cities and Towns, a well-funded government advocacy organization, opposed many attempts to reform eminent domain, saying they would severely impede planning and zoning authority of municipalities. In the end, Arizona voters took matters into their own hands, passing a ballot measure by 70 percent. That kind of advocacy, financed by our tax dollars, pits government against taxpayers.
Citizens throughout the United States have demanded less spending and more accountability when it comes to government lobbyists. In Florida, lobbyists who spend the public dime are barred from lobbying for two years. And Floridian bureaucrats who use public funds for lobbying see that amount deducted from their paycheck. That's a sensible way to get public servants back in the business of serving the public.
Of course, there are legitimate instances when government officials need to testify or share information with other branches of government. But theres a fundamental difference between providing information through testimony and hiring lobbyists to influence and mold public policy. In Arizona, we've lost that important distinction.
Recently, the Goldwater Institute released a study, Your Tax Dollars at Work: The Implications of Taxpayer-funded Lobbying, that reveals just how much money government spends lobbying for its own interests and proposes a path for reform.
While there are different models to consider, the best way forward is clear. True reform requires the outright prohibition of government bodies lobbying with taxpayer dollars. Taxpayers can do without government lobbyists. Lets hope this year, legislators decide they can, too.
Benjamin Barr is a constitutional policy analyst with the Goldwater Institute, www.goldwaterinstitute.org.