April 5 2012

Low standards for government lobbying transparency

Diana Lopez

Unlike our interactions with non-public institutions, we can't just take our money elsewhere when it comes to government, and we can't just not care--it's our duty to keep our elected bodies accountable.

This is why lobbying disclosure requirements for public bodies are so important. It is one thing to want to know what private interests are influencing legislation in-state and at Congress. It is quite another to know what specific legislation and programs your tax money is funding. The latter instance proves a more pressing need for transparency.

Many, if not most, governments attempt to influence legislation by lobbying. But the lobbying registration philosophy in some states is odd. According to the Pacific Research Institute, 44 out of the 50 states have exemptions specific to public bodies that lobby. The reasoning? Lobbying is a "natural" function of public office.

Perhaps it is. Still, lobbying by public entities remains an activity in particular that governments should be open about. Besides the fact that ailing state budgets require voters and officials to scrutinize public spending, the spirit of open government practically demands that legislation being promoted with public funds be known as such. For example, while some governments lobby for more state money, others can be lobbying to weaken state Open Meetings Act, as is the case in Texas.

Only one state takes transparency here seriously. The Minnesota State Auditor posts an annual report summarizing the lobbying by public entities in the state. The report includes information on contract lobbyists that local entities like cities, counties, and school districts hire, but it goes one step further: it includes membership in taxpayer-funded lobbying associations in the report. These associations are funded by governments, but are generally not subject to the same open records laws that governments are.

Even then, there's room for improvement: Minnesota does not compile information for local governments that lobby the federal government.

Governments owe it to their citizens to let us know where public funds are being used for lobbying--we should at least be allowed in the discussion. Minnesota may not be perfect, but it's a start.

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