BOZEMAN – Missoula taxing bodies led the way in public spending on lobbyists during the 2009 legislative session.
A review of lobbying disclosure forms by the Montana Policy Institute found the City of Missoula outspent all other cities who hired lobbyists, with a total of $27,787. That was several thousand dollars ahead of the closest city, Billings, which spent $19,600. Those numbers are according to records filed with the state Office of Political Practices.
While Missoula led all cities, Missoula County outspent all other counties in spending on lobbyists. Missoula County spent $15,310 compared to Yellowstone County’s spending of $12,446.11.
Only five cities and six counties in Montana filed reports of spending money on lobbying the state legislature during the 2009 session.
Supporters of using public funds for lobbying say the money is well spent to influence legislation that could impact residents. Critics question spending taxpayer dollars on lobbying in a tight economy and say the public needs to be better informed of what their money is supporting or opposing.
“Lobbyists are quite influential and the good ones can help kill bad bills and move good ones forward,” said Bill Carey, chairman of the Missoula Board of County Commissioners.
Missoula Mayor John Engen said city officials owe it to residents to be proactive in addressing potential legislation with a local impact.
“We need to be sure we don’t end up with policies…that limit our ability to serve the folks of Missoula,” Engen said, citing issues that deal with taxes, water and air quality.
Missoula Council Member John Hendrickson said he sees the benefit of lobbyists but questions the spending in tight economic times, calling more than $27,000 “a lot of money.” Hendrickson also took issue with the decision-making process regarding what bills the city would lobby for or against.
Neither the city nor county of Missoula appears to have an official process for elected officials to determine what position the city takes on legislation.
Carey said potential issues are generally discussed and a consensus reached, but no official vote is taken. In the city of Missoula, Hendrickson said the administration makes the call on what to support and oppose.
“I didn’t want the city lobbying for things I didn’t agree upon,” Hendrickson said. “Before you go lobby for (an issue), the discussion should be had locally.”
During the 2009 session the city took lobbying positions on dozens of bills, ranging from opposing the revision of late voter registration guidelines to more controversial issues such as the city’s support for a bill to provide a local option to impose a tourism sales tax. The city also supported a failed attempt to make seat belt use a primary enforcement issue and backed a bill that raised fees for establishments that undergo health inspections despite opposition from the restaurant industry.
“(The bill to increase fees) does not go nearly far enough, but can be revisited again in two years,” lobbyist’s report to city officials stated.
Asked how he would respond to taxpayers who oppose spending their money to support legislation they might oppose, Engen said in a representative government leaders are elected to make those decisions.
In the case of the sales tax issue, Engen said he simply wants the opportunity to ask voters whether they would support it or not.
“I’m happy to take ‘No’ for an answer, but today I can’t even ask the question,” Engen said.
State Representative David Howard (R-Park City) said he has found lobbyists to be helpful and a good source of information. However, he is not in favor of individual taxing bodies paying for lobbyists.
“I don’t think my tax dollars should be paying for them to lobby me,” Howard said. “They’re spending somebody else’s money for their agenda.”
Howard also said with a handful of cities and counties lobbying, that creates the possibility of an inequity between the influence larger areas can have as opposed to more rural regions.
“The city of Billings certainly has a whole lot more money than the city of Columbus,” he said.
Howard said he would prefer cities and counties put funds toward county or city associations which lobby on behalf of an entire group instead of an individual taxing body.
Montana Taxpayers Association President Mary Whittinghill said there should be a higher level of awareness of taxpayer-funded lobbying efforts so voters can make a determination of whether that is a good use of their money.
“I’m sure most people are not aware of it,” Whittinghill said. “At least it should be transparent.”
Hendrickson said he doesn’t believe the public is aware of what the city is lobbying for or against. Hendrickson said he plans to address the issue again at some point in the future.
“I want the city council to have more of a say” in what the city supports and opposes, Hendrickson said.
Lobbyist disclosure forms are available to the public online at the state’s website:
Lobbying Expenses Reported by Cities
City of Missoula – $27,787.00
City of Billings – $19,600.00
City of Bozeman – $4,652.28
City of Glendive – $3,000.00
City of Great Falls – $2,673.30
Lobbying Expenses Reported by Counties
Missoula County – $15,310.00
Yellowstone County – $12,830.64
Lewis and Clark County – $8,500.00
Fallon County – $5,850.30
Teton County – $4,142.33
Rosebud County – $2,000.00