Local governments are spending taxpayers' money to lobby for more power over taxpayers.
The Texas Municipal League, for example, collects tax-funded dues from 1,153 cities. This year alone, the league has employed or contracted with 13 registered lobbyists, who have campaigned for cities' power to impose everything from Airbnb restrictions to property tax increases.
Last year, Arizona's professional regulatory boards—funded through a mix of taxes and licensing fees—spent roughly $1 million on professional lobbyists, who helped scuttle occupational licensing reform in the state.
"The challenge with taxpayers funding lobbyists is that they're being forced to pay for services that typically run contrary to their interests," says Chuck DeVore, vice president of the Texas Public Policy Foundation. These lobbyists, he says, "invariably lobby for bigger government, more borrowing, higher spending, and more regulation."
Local governments and government agencies have become the predominant spender of lobbying dollars in several states. California's local government entities—from cities to school boards—spent $23.4 million hiring lobbyists during the first two quarters of 2017, more than any other sector. In Washington state, local governments spent $2.5 million lobbying state officials in 2013, the latest year for which I have comprehensive data. That's more than the $2.1 million that came from the business community, or the $1.9 million spent by unions.
During the 2015 Texas legislative session, over half of the 1,741 registered lobbyists in the state were working in some capacity for local government entities. Local governments spent $16 million on lobbying the same year.
The growing pot of federal and state dollars up for grabs can make these expenditures a profitable investment, says DeVore. "For every dollar spent on lobbying the higher-level entity, there are hundreds and hundreds of dollars at stake," he says.
In many states, the size of that investment is growing.
In Nevada local governments spent $3.75 million on lobbying this year, a 13 percent increase from the previous state legislative session.
"Lobby for local government aid so they can pay for a lobbyist for more local government aid," one frustrated Minnesota lawmaker complained to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.
Tepid efforts have been made to reform the practice of tax-funded lobbying.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey banned state agencies under his control from hiring outside lobbyists in 2016, saying the practice was "unnecessary and unjust." The legislature codified that move this year.
Eleven states have implemented similar restrictions on state bodies, such as regulatory boards and public universities, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
But no states restrict local governments from hiring lobbyists, or from spending tax money on representative associations. A 2015 Texas bill that would have done that failed without ever making it to a floor vote, as did a similar 2008 California bill, put forward by DeVore himself while he was still a state Assemblyman.
There is of course nothing inherently wrong with spending on lobbyists to influence legislation. Private interest groups using voluntary contributions to make their case directly to legislators is an integral part of the democratic process. But when those funds come from compulsory taxes and are being spent by government entities, the equation changes.
"Local governments already have lobbyists—they're called elected officials," says DeVore. "Going that extra step and paying lobbyists tens of millions of dollars to try to influence government is just wrong. It's a misuse of government resources, and its patently unfair to taxpayers."