For years, San Antonio’s leaders have been urging Congress to fund construction of a new federal courthouse in the city’s downtown. The current courthouse, originally built as a theater in the 1960s, lacks adequate security and is plagued by poor ventilation and unsafe drinking water. Now the effort is paying off. Congress has cut funding for courthouses in recent years, but the latest budget includes money for eight new ones, and San Antonio is on the list.
The victory for the city was aided, in part, by lobbyists hired over a long period of years. While one government lobbying another doesn’t often receive the same attention as lobbying by private industries, it’s an everyday occurrence in state capitols and in Washington.
Data reported by the Center for Responsive Politics indicates that states, localities and their associations collectively spent $71 million in federal lobbying last year. The education sector, primarily colleges and universities, spent another $77 million. When combined, more was spent on those two areas of public-sector lobbying than defense, oil and gas, and some other major industries.
“Intergovernmental relations is one of those under-the-radar-activities for any city,” says Jeff Coyle, who heads government affairs for San Antonio. “How a city relates to and is governed by states and the federal government is crucially important to people in the community, whether they realize it or not.”
Some governments employ dedicated intergovernmental relations staff, and a select few larger cities maintain personnel in Washington. Many contract with private lobbying firms to give them broader reach. State and national associations further represent governments and groups of officials on a range of issues.
At the federal level, top priorities of state and local government associations include protecting tax exemption for municipal bonds and seeking the authority to collect sales taxes from online retailers. “Whether it’s education, advocating or lobbying, those who are closest to the people ought to have a seat at the table in informing decisions made by other levels of government,” says Carolyn Coleman, director of federal advocacy for the National League of Cities.
Puerto Rico spent about $2.3 million lobbying federal lawmakers last year -- more than any other government -- as lawmakers debated how to help address the territory’s fiscal crisis. Most of the large spenders were universities -- 14 spent more than $500,000 each on lobbying last year. San Antonio spent just under $200,000 on its federal lobbying efforts, which included the campaign for the new courthouse. “It’s always a challenge to make sure we’re high enough on the priority list,” says San Antonio’s Coyle, “while living within what we can afford.”
In state capitols, localities are increasingly pushing back against laws limiting their jurisdiction on issues ranging from local fracking bans to minimum-wage ordinances. While many such proposals reflect partisan rivalries, others involve budgetary restrictions or operational measures that carry major implications. One bill San Antonio and other Texas localities fought last year proposed sharply reducing the amount that municipal property tax revenues could increase in the absence of an election. “We spend 80 percent of our time playing defense,” Coyle says, “protecting our ability to make decisions at the local level rather than have state government dictate what we do.”
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has not only supported a variety of preemption efforts but has repeatedly called for a prohibition on school districts or their boards spending money to lobby the legislature. Abbott sees the practice as a conflict of interest. “School districts should directly represent the needs of their schools and not waste taxpayer resources on lobbyists,” he said during a 2013 campaign speech.
Two bills introduced in the Texas Legislature last year targeted government lobbying more broadly. A state senate proposal would bar political subdivisions that impose taxes from using public funds to influence legislation, with exceptions.
State Sen. Konni Burton, the bill’s sponsor, views government lobbying as an improper use of public funds, saying it puts an unnecessary layer between state and local elected officials. While Burton says she is comfortable with government associations disseminating information on bills, she doesn’t think they should lobby actively. “Our taxpayer dollars are being used to work against us in Austin,” Burton says. “When I say that I’m against taxpayer-funded lobbying, it gets a huge round of applause.”
Local officials in Texas say that they need a lobbying voice in state decision-making as they don’t have the time or resources to keep up with the thousands of bills introduced each session. Many serve only part time, and the Capitol is a long drive away in a state as large as Texas.
The Texas Association of Counties fears that the anti-lobbying bills could make it easier for the state to impose new unfunded mandates on the localities. “There’s a lot of political hay to be made that associations like ours are out to lobby against the best interests of taxpayers,” says Paul Sugg, the association’s legislative director. “We’re trying to limit government and limit new burdens that add to the property tax.”
The government lobbying bills stalled in the Texas Legislature this year, failing to making it out of committee in either the House or Senate. Burton plans to reintroduce her bill next session.
Data on just how much localities spend lobbying state legislatures is scant. A few legislatures have enacted laws requiring localities to report their lobbying expenses to the state. Nevada’s local governments recorded $3.3 million in lobbying expenditures last year, while Minnesota’s total exceeded $8.9 million.
At the federal level, lobbying expenditures for states, localities and their associations have remained flat the past three years after peaking at $95.7 million in 2009, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Opposition has mostly come from conservative groups who argue it’s a waste of taxpayer money. Three residents of Williamson County, Texas, won a lawsuit against the county in 2008, citing a state statute that blocks counties from spending general fund revenues, in most cases, on dues to an association that attempts to influence legislation. A judge ordered the Texas Association of Counties to stop using county-paid dues for lobbying, so the group now funds the expenses using other sources of revenue.
Outside of Texas, some public-sector groups include lobbying services in membership dues, while others allow governments to pay for representation separately. Governments and their associations are subject to more limitations than other lobby groups, such as not engaging in grassroots lobbying campaigns or attempts to influence elections.