Scott Mooneyham column: Another round on lobbying

Published 12:00 am Monday, November 24, 2008

RALEIGH ó I was reminded recently that taxpayer-funded lobbying can be a little complicated after writing about the practice as it occurred in little Chowan County in northeastern North Carolina.
The first reminder came from Brian Nick, chief of staff to U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole.
Nick wasn’t pleased that the column I wrote included a quote from former Chowan County Manager Cliff Copeland, who told The Virginian-Pilot newspaper that Dole had advised the county to hire a lobbyist ó her former chief staff ó to pursue of federal tax dollars.
“Absolutely not,” Nick said.
Nick told me that Dole would never advise a local government to hire a lobbyist. Not only that, her office has held seminars for local government officials designed to help them pursue their wish lists in Washington without the aid of a lobbyist.
So, good for North Carolina’s outgoing U.S. senator. Maybe in her new life outside Congress she’ll become an advocate to stop the abuses associated with local governments hiring lobbyists to try to outdo each other on federal earmarks. Her husband, Bob, can still make plenty of money while lobbying in its proper sphere, working for private sector companies.
I was also reminded that taxpayer-financed lobbying comes in forms other than cities or counties hiring private lobbying firms to do their budget bidding in Washington.
In North Carolina, towns and cities join together and pay dues ó of course, collected from tax coffers ó as part of something called the N.C. League of Municipalities. Among other functions, the League of Municipalities lobbies state legislators on issues of common interest to all towns and cities.
The N.C. Association of County Commissioners and the N.C. School Boards Association are similar organizations.
People can and do disagree with the positions taken by these organizations. The league’s fierce defense of the state’s strong annexation laws is a prime example.
Still, there’s value in having organizations that represent the common interests of local governments, making legislators understand their problems and needs.
And these groups, unlike local governments that hire private lobbying firms, aren’t promoting a pork-grabbing free-for-all that damages the very interests of the taxpayers that local elected officials are supposed to be representing.
The lobbyists for these associations aren’t so different from what are known as legislative liaisons, paid public employees who lobbying on behalf of state agencies.
Every now and again, some legislator will argue the value of taxpayer-funded legislative liaisons. These legislators, apparently, prefer even less information as they pass the laws of the state.
In fact, local government associations and legislative liaisons have nothing to do with the growing trend of individual towns, cities or counties paying private lobbyists to get congressional earmarks for $5 million to build a local jail or $10 million to develop a park.
The practice is a blight on good government. At its extreme, it becomes nothing more than a kickback scheme to funnel tax dollars into congressional incumbents campaign coffers, with lobbyists acting as the middle man.
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Scott Mooneyham is a columnist for Capitol Press Association.

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