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Will Mississippi ban state agencies from hiring lobbyists?

By   /   February 15, 2017  /   News  /   No Comments

Photo illustration by Steve Wilson

OUTSIDE INSIDERS: A bill passed by the Mississippi Senate could end the practice of state agencies paying for contract lobbyists.

A bill passed by the Mississippi Senate could end the practice of state agencies hiring outside lobbyists.

The measure passed last week would prohibit state agencies — which includes the state’s universities and community colleges — from using taxpayer funds to hire contract lobbyists.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves told Mississippi Watchdog that getting rid of the practice is a “no-brainer.” He said his staff found that agencies have spent more than $500,000 on lobbyists in the current fiscal year.  

“My view is that taxpayers don’t expect their money to be used by state agencies to lobby their elected officials for more money that they have to come up with,” Reeves said. “We live in a world of scare resources and we have limited dollars up here. We have to be mindful of every single penny.

“That is a lot of money that could be spent doing the actual functions of government, like paving roads, rather than hiring lobbyists.”

State Sen. John Polk, R-Hattiesburg, chairman of the Senate Accountability, Efficiency, Transparency Committee says agencies are better off bringing their executive directors and their assistants to the capitol than hiring a lobbyist.

“They’re just more noise you have to listen to,” said Polk, who sponsored the legislation.

RELATED: Texas taxpayers spend $16 million to lobby legislature

Finding the data on how much the state is spending on lobbying contracts isn’t easy, Reeves said.

“They hide it. They hide it in consulting contracts, consulting relationships,” Reeves said. “There’s not just one place where you can hit a button and find all of these contracts. We don’t have an exhaustive list of all of the agencies that are doing this.”

One example was the annual Department of Revenue consulting contract with lobbyist Sidney Michael Albritton to provide “state government relation services” for $72,000 annually. For lobbying alone, Albritton charged taxpayers $25,000 in 2013, $35,000 in 2014, $35,000 in 2015 and $27,000 in 2016.

The numbers appeared in reports that all lobbyists are required to submit to the secretary of state’s office annually.

Photo by the State of Mississippi

CANCELED: A contract cancellation letter between the Mississippi Department of Revenue and a lobbyist was posted right after passage of a Senate bill that would prohibit lobbyists from receiving taxpayer funds from state agencies.

Polk’s legislation was transmitted to the House on Tuesday. A termination letter appeared on the state’s Transparency.ms.gov page later that day dated Sept. 30, 2016.

While the dollar amounts that Reeves’ staff found aren’t huge, Polk said that’s not the point.

“My Dad grew up in a time when he didn’t have an opportunity to have a great education, but he was a wise man,” Polk said. “When we were starting our family company, the one thought that sticks with me today and I tell my daughter, who is running the company now, is that ‘when you watch the pennies, the dollars take care of themselves.'”

If the bill is enacted, Mississippi would be the eleventh state to prohibit state agencies from using taxpayer funds to lobby state agencies. The others are: Alaska, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, Utah and Virginia.

The prohibition wouldn’t extend to state employees who are registered with the secretary of state’s office as lobbyists and who lobby for their employer at the capitol. Also, universities and community colleges would still be able to hire contract lobbyists with funds provided by their foundations, which are supported by donations.

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Steve Wilson is the Mississippi reporter for Watchdog.org. Beginning his career as a sports writer, he has worked for the Mobile Press-Register (Ala.), the LaGrange Daily News (Ga.), Highlands Today (Fla.),McComb Enterprise-Journal (Miss.), the Biloxi Sun Herald(Miss.) and the Vicksburg Post (Miss.) Steve's work has appeared on Fox News, the Huffington Post and the Daily Signal. His bachelor's degree is in journalism with a minor in political science from the University of Alabama. Steve is also a member of the Mississippi Press Association and Investigative Reporters and Editors. He served four-plus years in the United States Coast Guard after his high school graduation and is a native of Mobile, Ala.