When you go to work, your tax dollars go to work against you.
While you head off to work today to earn your paycheck, your tax dollars are also at work – against you. Local governments are spending your tax dollars on private lobbyists who advocate to raise your taxes and gain more authority to regulate your lives and property.
These polices would make it more expensive to work, live, and do business in Wisconsin. Some of these private lobbyists even receive state retirement and healthcare benefits while lobbying to raise your taxes.
Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce recently released a report showing that local governments spent over $5 million in tax dollars lobbying the state legislature during the 2017-18 legislative session. Much of this money is spent on private lobbyists. The two largest taxpayer-funded lobbying entities alone spent $1.5 million last session, more than any privately funded company or trade association.
Five million in tax dollars is a significant underestimate, as it only captures the amount spent directly lobbying legislators in Madison. Local governments employ a wide variety of other tools to influence lawmakers including non-binding referenda (remember the dozens of marijuana referenda in the fall of 2018) and political ad campaigns (including ads encouraging lawmakers to raise property taxes), all financed with your tax dollars.
This level of spending begs the question: why do local governments need to hire private lobbyists in the first place? Municipalities already have thousands of effective advocates in their own elected officials. Taxpayers elect and compensate these local officials with the expectation that they will represent their constituents’ interests.
When local officials hire contract lobbyists or third-party associations, they outsource to private groups their duty to represent their constituents. This outsourcing not only drives up costs and decreases transparency, but is also unnecessary and inefficient, as local officials already have sufficient access to state legislators.
Local governments can – and do – use taxpayer dollars to fund a third-party association or contract lobbyist to advocate for public policy directly contrary to the interests of their own taxpayers. These associations and contract lobbyists are private entities not accountable to voters. Shifting advocacy efforts to these private groups allows local officials to indirectly advocate for unpopular policies like tax increases that harm their constituents while protecting themselves from voter backlash and avoiding transparency rules like public meetings and open records laws.
The state legislature should ban the use of taxpayer dollars to pay for contract lobbyists and third-party associations that lobby. Since local governments already have thousands of elected and appointed officials with significant access to legislators and other state officials, this ban would not reduce local governments’ ability to address state-level issues.
The ban also would not stop local governments from joining third-party associations that provide vital services like the promotion of best practices and trainings. It would only prohibit the use of taxpayer dollars being spent on lobbying. This ban would increase the transparency and accountability of local officials when they lobby the state government.
Further, the legislature should prohibit local governments from spending taxpayer dollars on political campaign ads and stop providing private lobbyists healthcare and retirement benefits. No government should be allowed to interfere in elections, including local units of government.
Yet currently local governments can – and do – legally spend your tax dollars on political ads to influence the outcome of state elections. Further, the fact that some private sector lobbyists can receive state health insurance and retirement benefits while lobbying to increase the cost of state and local government is a dubious practice. Ending these misuses of tax dollars are good governance reforms that should be enacted.
If local governments have problems they would like the state legislature to address, local officials already have the relationships and funding needed to access their state representatives without paying millions to private lobbyists. It is wrong that local governments can spend your tax dollars on lobbyists in Madison pushing for higher taxes and more regulatory authority while evading transparency and accountability.
Learn more about taxpayer funded lobbying here.
Cory Fish is Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce’s General Counsel and Director of Tax, Transportation, and Legal Affairs.