Lobbying: Federal-type ban is not an instant cure

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 30, 2008

Under longstanding federal rules, no federal agency or federal employee is allowed to lobby Congress or to use tax dollars to employ firms for that purpose.

Not so in Mississippi.

State agencies live or die depending on how the Legislature slices the revenue pie, so attempts to gain favor and influence lawmakers go well beyond submitting written budget proposals and testifying, when asked, at hearings.

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Now the Legislature itself is questioning some of these activities. Specifically, the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review in August released a report saying state agencies spent a total of $1.29 million on private lobbyists over the last four years. In tight times, the expense has created a lot of buzz.

Some see it as circular. Taxpayers paid a former state senator $363,000 to beseech more tax dollars for the state Department of Transportation. Public universities paid more than $300,000 over the same period for the same purpose. That’s more than enough to raise an eyebrow.

It would be easy to condemn this situation as nonsensical and wasteful. PEER reports that some states — Louisiana, Florida and North Carolina — have adopted the federal rule. The practice of paying private lobbyists might be banned in Mississippi during the 2009 session, which starts Jan. 6.

To be honest about this, however, requires an understanding of the process.

Unlike members of Congress, members of the Mississippi Legislature do not have immense staffs to conduct research. Most of them actually answer their own phones.

Information is essential to decision-making and though “lobbyist” is frequently believed to be a dirty word, what honest brokers do is provide facts most favorable to their clients while other lobbyists are presenting competing information for their clients.

There’s an issue of semantics, too. If Jackson State or Mississippi University for Women hired a “legislative liaison” as a staff position, that person’s paycheck would not show up as a lobbying expense. The salary for the job, however, would still amount to spending tax money to get more tax money.

This is not as quick or easy a problem to solve as it may appear. Those saying it is a matter of “integrity” might remember that despite the federal rules many members of Congress and their staffs have wound up in prison for, in effect, selling their votes.

The situation does deserve what PEER has been doing — monitoring and creating a public awareness. Crooks should go to jail. But the Legislature does not need to pass kneejerk, reactionary legislation. A ban would not make dishonest people suddenly become honest, but it might keep honest public servants from receiving information relevant to their votes.