Taxpayer-funded lobbying has become a pervasive issue in Texas, exemplified by the Texas Association of School Boards (TASB) and their lobbying efforts. The Southwest Public Policy Institute (SPPI) recently shed light on the issue, urging for simple yet comprehensive reforms to restore transparency, fairness, and accountability in our democratic processes.
Our epilogue begins when taxpayer-funded lobbying reared its ugly head, directly impacting proposed universal school choice legislation in Texas. Senate Bill 8 aims to create and fund education savings accounts (ESAs) of $8,000 per school year for Texas students, providing them with enhanced educational opportunities. However, opponents argue that it undermines the separation of church and state and promotes conservative religious dominance in government.
What makes this case even more concerning is that TASB, a major player in the school choice debate, spent a staggering $841,250 on lobbying in 2018, all funded by taxpayers. In the school choice debate, TASB advocated against the proposed ESA program, something that would deliver tax dollars directly to parents. This raises questions about the appropriate use of taxpayer funds and the fairness of the lobbying process.
Taxpayer-funded lobbying is not limited to Texas alone; it is a widespread issue across the American Southwest, transcending political leanings. This practice undermines the principles of democracy and the rights of citizens. Regardless of our individual beliefs or affiliations, we should all be concerned when taxpayer funds are used to advocate for specific policies and ideologies, forcing citizens to support views they may disagree with.
Lobbying has become a significant industry, targeting politicians and bureaucrats at all levels of government. While the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) defines lobbying in relation to legislative bodies and legislation, the Supreme Court recognizes that the right to petition the government extends to administrative agencies and courts as well. This broad definition of lobbying highlights the need for comprehensive reforms to address taxpayer-funded advocacy.
The exact cost of taxpayer-funded lobbying remains unknown, but it is evident that substantial amounts of money are being spent. A comprehensive investigation revealed that $3.5 billion was spent on lobbying in state capitals between 2019 and 2020. While we do not have precise figures on the cost to taxpayers, a 2010 analysis indicated that taxpayer-funded lobbying accounted for nearly one-quarter of lobbying expenditures in a specific state between 2007 and 2008. These numbers raise concerns about the lack of transparency in lobbying.
Government entities employ various tactics to influence policymaking, including in-house personnel, contract lobbyists, and membership organizations. These organizations often claim to represent government entities and receive a significant portion of their funding from public sources. By engaging in activities such as testifying, issuing statements, and conducting media campaigns, they shape public opinion and influence legislation. It is crucial to clarify the distinctions between different tax-exempt categories and establish clear guidelines for permissible lobbying activities within each category.
Ending taxpayer-funded lobbying is not complex; rather, it is a matter of swift and comprehensive action. It is essential to recognize that government entities do not possess rights but have the duty to safeguard the rights of citizens. Implementing comprehensive bans on taxpayer-funded lobbying would allow public-sector employees to privately influence decisions using their own resources while preventing the use (and abuse) of public funds for advocacy.
The American Legislative Exchange Council has drafted a model ordinance for municipalities and counties, which restricts payments to registered lobbyists, their associates, and entities hired to affect legislation or government policies. Wide-spread adoption of such regulations would be a significant step toward curbing the abuse and ensuring greater accountability in our democratic processes.
Taxpayer-funded lobbying undermines the principles of democracy, distorts the policymaking process, and infringes upon core civil liberties. Swift and decisive action is necessary to put an end to taxpayer-funded lobbying. Working together to restore transparency, fairness, and accountability, will ensure that taxpayer funds are properly utilized for the betterment of society as a whole. The time has come to safeguard the rights of all citizens.
Patrick M. Brenner is the president of the Southwest Public Policy Institute, a think tank dedicated to improving the quality of life in the American Southwest by formulating, promoting, and defending sound public policy solutions. Our mission is simple: to deliver better living through better policy.