DES MOINES — Tight budgets that forced layoffs and cutbacks didn’t stop publicly funded agencies in Iowa from stepping up lobbying efforts during the past three years, an Iowa Watchdog analysis shows.
Nearly 90 Iowa taxpayer-backed organizations — including cities, school districts and state agencies — spent more than a combined $2.6 million in fiscal 2012 to lobby their interests with state lawmakers.
That’s up nearly $500,000, or 23 percent, from two years ago when only 66 agencies reported lobbying expenses, according to figures from the Iowa Legislature and Iowa Ethics & Campaign Disclosure Board.
The spending figures don’t include the additional tens of thousands of dollars groups that indirectly receive public money, including the Iowa Association of School Boards and Iowa Police Chiefs Association, poured into lobbying. They also don’t include federal lobbying expenses, which cost Iowa taxpayers at least $732,000 last fiscal year, according to lobbying reports on OpenSecrets.org.
Critics question why public agencies are spending more on lobbying while struggling to pay their bills. Others say it’s a small price to pay for influence and access to a larger pool of money for local projects, especially when funds are scarce.
“It seems odd on the surface that these public entities would spend money on lobbying when times are tough,” said Tim Hagle, a political science professor at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. “But that’s when they really need to make their argument. There is greater competition for fewer state and federal dollars. They have to work harder to get their share.”
Among the top spenders on state lobbying in 2012 were:
- Iowa Board of Regents, $149,634;
- Polk County Board of Supervisors, $98,000;
- Cedar Rapids,$95,000.
Iowa isn’t alone.
Taxpayer-funded lobbying has increased in other states in recent years. The expansion largely has gone unchecked because of lenient state laws that provide few limits, said Diana Lopez, senior editor of the Sunshine Review, a Virginia-based nonprofit, which advocates for government transparency.
Cities and school districts often don’t publicize their lobbying efforts, even though they must file reports with the state. Many residents have no idea their tax dollars are being used to influence lawmakers in Des Moines and Washington D.C., Lopez said.
“Governments are not good at disclosing this information,” Lopez said. “The secrecy is the water for the lobbying to grow unchecked. The public has no say or insight.”
Iowa City is one of a handful of cities that began lobbying. It spent $10,500 last fiscal year. In exchange, the city received increased accessibility to lawmakers and was better able to push their position on issues, said Adam Bentley, administrative assistant to the city manager in Iowa City.
The efforts in Iowa City didn’t necessarily pay off in the form of dollars, which wasn’t the case for the Eastern Iowa Community College District. College district officials spent $20,000 lobbying federal lawmakers in 2012. They were successful in securing about $400,000 in federal money to build a second entrance to their campus, allowing for its expansion, said Gary Mohr, executive director of external affairs at Eastern Iowa Community College District.
Money, however, has been harder to secure in recent years because of a drop in federal earmarks, Mohr said.
“Some people will look at this and say this is an inappropriate use of taxpayer money,” Hagle said. “It seems inappropriate for the government to lobby itself. But you are looking at it as a whole and not realizing all the different layers of government. But there are limits.”