Traverse City Record-Eagle

March 9, 2013

Another View: State needs to improve lobbying rules

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — There’s a fine line between lobbying for a political agenda and representing the interests of citizens who use a particular state or local service. Given that, Michigan should turn some attention to the issue of how much taxpayer money is — or should be — pent by agents at various levels of governance to advocate at the Legislature.

State government spent $556,000 to lobby the Legislature last year, although state officials rightly point out that almost all spending amounts to staff time spent by officials of various state agencies whose job it is to provide information to lawmakers about the impact of legislation under consideration. That’s necessary. Likewise, it’s hard to quibble with the notion that a governor, expected to set an agenda, will have staffers whose jobs involve interacting with lawmakers to advance that agenda.

The issue isn’t limited to state government. Taxpayer-funded organizations at every level strive to educate lawmakers and presumably influence their decisions. Michigan’s universities spent the most last year, some $660,607. Colleges added another $268,545, pushing higher education spending just shy of $1 million. Cities and counties together spent $615,451. The smallest amount was spent by K-12 schools, at $208,000.

Overall, government spent $2.3 million lobbying lawmakers last year, a fraction the $36.6 million spent in 2012. Most — $34 million — is spent by private-sector lobbyists representing special interests. Still, governmental lobbying begs the question: What’s reasonable and what’s not?

Taxpayers living in cash-strapped cities might welcome efforts by local officials to prod lawmakers into doing better by cities. Parents of children attending the state’s public schools might feel likewise. Families of young adults seeking college educations — and business leaders needing a highly educated workforce — might support efforts to influence higher education policy.

But is there a line that ought not to be crossed? A report by LSJ staff writer Kristen Daum noted that the state’s Education Achievement Authority — created to take over some low-performing public schools — spent $35,000 lobbying to expand its reach, including hiring a professional lobbying firm. Officials said some of that cost was covered by a $12,000 grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Still, some taxpayers will find use of a professional lobbying firm to be questionable.

The Center for Public Integrity has given Michigan a failing score on its standards for lobbying. Put lobbying by governmental agencies on the list of topics for improvement.

Lansing State Journal