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WMC Report: Taxpayers taxed twice by local lobbying

Empower Wisconsin | Dec. 11  2019

By M.D. Kittle

MADISON — Local governments are spending millions of your tax dollars on private lobbyists to beg state government for even more of your money, according to a new report by Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce.

The report, “Local (Out Of) Control: How Your Tax Dollars Are Used to Lobby for Higher Taxes,” calls for reforming a double-dipping system, effectively hitting taxpayers twice.

During the 2017-18 legislative session, local government groups funded by tax dollars spent more than $5 million lobbying state government — in many cases for policies to raise taxes, the WMC report states. The biggest player was the Wisconsin Counties Association, which spent more time lobbying state government in the first half of 2019 than any other lobbying entity, according to the Wisconsin Ethics Commission.

“Even though Wisconsin has the fifth-highest property taxes in the country, Wisconsin businesses and homeowners are still facing an ever-increasing tax burden from local governments,” said Corydon Fish, WMC general counsel and director of Tax, Transportation and Legal Affairs. “It is especially unsettling that local governments fund private advocacy organizations and contract lobbyists that are not accountable to voters to push unpopular policies – like more taxing authority – at the state level.”

The report “outlines how local governments subvert the democratic process by funding third-party associations — not subject to open meetings or public records laws — to lobby for policies that are not popular with the general taxpaying public.”

Beyond direct lobbying, the report notes local governments attempt to influence state lawmakers via non-binding referenda and issue-based ad campaigns — all financed with local taxpayer money.

“The millions of dollars spent by local governments each year on lobbying could be put to better use to improve roads, provide additional funding to schools or better support law enforcement,” the report asserts.

A representative from the Wisconsin Counties Association did not return a message seeking comment, but the WCA’s website notes the agency “works diligently to provide services to our membership that allow them to serve their constituents in the most effective manner possible.”

“These services include a legislative team that serves on the frontlines, acting as the voice of county officials at the Capitol.” The voice of county officials, but not necessarily the voice of taxpayers.

WCA and other local government lobbying groups spend a lot of their time lobbying for more state aid, as state mandates for services climb and shared funding declines.

The common perception is that big business and the private sector in general dominate the lobbying space, but local governments have spent a fortune trying to influence political decisions. And taxpayers are footing the bill nationwide.

California’s local government entities – from cities to school boards — spent $23.4 million hiring lobbyists during the first two quarters of 2017, according to Reason.com. In the 2015 Texas legislative session, more than half of the 1,741 registered lobbyists in the state were working at some level for local government entities, the publication reported.

There’s a big difference between private sector and public sector lobbying: Third-party lobbyists for industry aren’t paid with taxpayer money.

“Taxpayers have no recourse for local governments acting against their best interests because they are required to pay taxes, unlike private businesses who freely choose to join – or leave for that matter – a membership organization that works on their behalf,” the WMC report states.

WMC is urging policymakers to approve legislation that would prohibit local governments from using taxpayer dollars to pay for third-party advocacy organizations and private lobbyists, according to the press release. The report also recommends legislation that would prohibit the use of taxpayer dollars for issue advocacy campaigns, and prohibit third-party lobbyists from receiving state pension and health care benefits.

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