CEDAR RAPIDS — More tax dollars are being used to help local public entities lobby state government, which local officials say is necessary but it has some government watchdogs concerned.
Iowa doesn't formally track the public sector separately from the private sector when it comes to lobbying the state legislature. But a review by The Gazette of required filings with the state by cities and counties shows more taxpayer money being spent either on contracts with professional lobbyists or through staff time.
For example, among cities in Iowa, seven filed state lobbying reports worth a combined $243,526 in 2008. By 2013, the number of cities filing reports jumped to 12, and the spending grew 37 percent, to $334,533, according to state reports.
Lindsay McQuarry, policy director of Iowans for Tax Relief, called it a concern, and said there is a lack of transparency about the practice. Her organization opposes using tax money to pay for lobbying because it is not "a core function of government."
"We see it because we are present at the (state) Capitol every day," McQuarry said. "The average person isn't. Absolutely, people are unaware how much money is being put towards lobbying."
But some local government officials said lobbying — meeting with legislators one on one or in groups to explain local concerns — can give more clout to communities facing complex issues such as tax increment financing reform, flood recovery, property tax reform and mental health system restructuring.
"If you look at the issues that cities and counties are concerned about, they are big ones and enormously impact our budget and how constituents perceive the work we are doing," said Linda Langston, a member of the Linn County Board of Supervisors and president of the National Association of Counties.
Local officials characterized their lobbyist as someone who provides information to affect policy rather than to influence where money is allocated.
"The problem is, unless you have someone who is familiar with how things work in Washington or how things work in Des Moines, your message could get lost if you don't have a professional," said Jeffrey Schott, director of Institute of Public Affairs director at University of Iowa and Marion's former city manager. "You are really stymied if you don't."
State Sen. Joe Bolkcom, D-Iowa City, said the additional lobbyists on behalf of local government is a good thing.
"I think cities need to be at the table when state policy is being developed," he said. "The Legislature hasn't always been kind to cities. When making policies, it's important to understand their issues."
For various government entities in Linn and Johnson counties, more than a hundred thousand dollars is spent annually at the state level for lobbying.
The Linn County Supervisors pays L&L Murphy Consulting of Oelwein $60,000 for statehouse lobbying. The city of Cedar Rapids hired its lobbyist, also L&L, in 2007 and also pays $60,000 annually.
The past three years, Cedar Rapids has paid Avenson, Oakley & Cope Consulting of Des Moines to advocate for the Growth Reinvestment Initiative, an effort to secure money for a flood management system. In 2013, the payment was $17,500.
Coralville first hired a professional lobbyist in 2007, and spends $28,750 annually. Iowa City started using a professional lobbyist for the 2012 legislative session, and spent $26,200, according to the most recent state filing.
This is in addition to thousands paid in dues to associations, such as the Iowa State Association of Counties, the National Association of Counties, Iowa League of Cities and the Iowa Police Chief Association, which lobby on behalf of its members in addition to other duties.
"The speed at which conversations happen is very fast," Geoff Fruin, assistant city manager in Iowa City, said of the Iowa statehouse. "It's a fast-paced environment down there. It's important that cities and all interest groups are responsive to issues that come up."
The idea is popping up in other public organizations, too, but municipalities such as Marion, which has considered a federal lobbyist although not one to work in the state, and the board of Cedar Rapids Community Schools don't have any plans to hire a lobbyist.
More lobbying coalitions also are emerging in recent years, particularly for larger communities.
Linn, Johnson, Scott and Black Hawk counties formed the Urban County Coalition, which began lobbying in 2012. Iowa's 10 largest cities, including Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, formed the Metropolitan Coalition to advocate their interests. In some cases, they work with dues-collecting state associations, such as the League of Cities and the Iowa State Association of Counties
The difference in issues between larger cities and rural communities is one of the popular reasons local officials cite for joining these specialized organizations.
“The challenge for groups like ISAC or League of Cities, they have to serve a broad array of masters,” Langston said. “It’s not to say they don’t represent our interests, but on some critical issues we believe the impacts to our county may be large enough that it is prudent to have someone representing our interest.”
CRITICS QUESTION SPENDING
Ten states ban their state agencies from using taxpayer money on lobbying.
This likely wouldn’t affect cities, counties or school boards, but such a rule could change practices for the Iowa Board of Regents, which spent $155,804 on lobbying through staff salaries and expenses. The regents have a variety of priorities to convey, such as general funding, allocations for building projects and institutes.
But public-sector lobbying raises questions because it uses public money to make taxpayers compete against each other, some said.
"When what they are pursuing competes against other agencies and other contracts for a bigger share of the pie, they are using tax dollars for what I consider not a public-interest purpose," said Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, a watchdog group in Washington, D.C. "Those with more money are more likely to win. That is not how public policy should be decided when you are paying tax dollars to do so."
RETURN ON INVESTMENT
The growth in lobbying isn't unique to Iowa or the public sector, said Peggy Kerns, director of the Ethics Center at the National Conference of State Legislators.
"The number of lobbyist has vastly increased in the public sector and the private sector," Kerns said. "Issues are more complex, so they may need more lobbying to explain them.
"It's just an industry that has grown. I can’t really tell you why it’s grown like that, but definitely it has."
Cedar Rapids has paid professional lobbyists at the state and national level more than $600,000 since 2007, according to state and federal figures. And that spending is well worth it, said Angie Charipar, assistant to the Cedar Rapids city manager.
"I don't know why cities as a whole choose to do that," Charipar said. "I know this specific city has a lot of specific needs. After the (2008) flood, the city and county had a lot of specific needs."
Charipar pointed to $50 million in grants for a variety of construction projects, and $264 million over 20 years to help fund the flood protection system as successes.
"$250 million is a pretty good return on investment compared to what we pay our lobbyists," she said.She said, even if a city priority is not successful, the lobbyist is still important to the communication process.