Tax-funded lobbyists vs. the public

Sunday, March 13, 2011

By Doug Crews

I've worked for the Missouri Press Association since 1979. I testified on a bill in the legislature for the first time in 1982. The press association and Missouri newspapers have been involved in every so-called Sunshine Law revision and every effort for increased open government since Missouri's Sunshine Law was passed in 1973.

I don't get paid with taxpayer money.

It's frustrating to run up against opponents of open government who are funded with tax money. This is your tax money, legislative constituents' tax money, my tax money.

Everywhere you turn there's an association whose dues are collected from tax money. Cities pay dues to their association, counties pay dues, school districts pay dues, ambulance districts, fire protection districts, the county clerks, the police chiefs, the county assessors, the county sheriffs, the county collectors. You get the picture.

Do these dues come from the pockets of individuals' private funds? No, the city councils and county commissions and school boards and ambulance boards and fire protection district boards and so on, vote to join these associations and pay the annual dues to their respective associations with tax money.

And, in turn, the associations hire individuals to lobby, and often those lobbyists are directed by the associations to testify against and derail open government issues.

Rep. Shane Schoeller, R-Willard, sponsor of House Bill 145, and 11 House co-sponsors, is trying to shed some light on this issue. House Bill 145 would require any entity receiving state funds to publish the name and compensation of each lobbyist employed by the entity and the name and membership dues paid to any other entity.

I'm a believer in free speech, and individuals have a constitutional right to come to Jefferson City and meet with elected officials and present their concerns on issues.

But not on the taxpayer's dime.

Let me list some examples, in no particular order, that have happened in the last couple of decades where public money has been used in attempts to close information to the public.

Public hospitals, built and supported by taxpayers, and their administrators and lobbyists wanted to close various financial records to the public.

Police and law enforcement lobbyists for three or four years running, wanted to shield internal investigation reports, generated when complaints are filed against police officers. The press association believes the reports should be treated just like any other incident report and should be available to the public.

The press association went through a tussle with the counties and their lobbyists to keep their annual financial statements easily accessible to the public.

State corrections lobbyists and officials successfully closed information to the public about how Missouri executes death row inmates.

Attempts were made by Missouri county collectors to shield from the public the tax records and taxpayer information they control. This information should be open. Citizens need to know if their neighbors are paying their taxes!

There are other examples I could list.

My point is: Public funds shouldn't be used for lobbying against the public.

On the local level, public funds are not supposed to be used for promoting ballot issues such as school bond issues or city or county issues involving taxes.

But in Jefferson City, public tax money is being spent to hire lobbyists.

If nothing else, there needs to be accountability to the public on how their tax dollars are being spent by various associations.

If an organization receives sources of taxpayer funding, then it should be required to report funding, and it should be required to report who gets the money, how much, and for what purpose it's spent on lobbying.

Doug Crews is executive director of the Missouri Press Association in Columbia.

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