The cost for lobbying at the state Capitol in 2011 is at its lowest in several years, but governments' hired hands are leading the way.
In a year when the Legislature is looking at cutting programs and new revenue is almost a pipe dream, local governments have been busy at the Capitol – not asking for new money as much as to preserve what they’ve got and head off unfavorable policies.
The state Public Disclosure Commission’s data on lobbyist spending show that government entities – cities, counties, ports, tribes and others – were the biggest spenders when compared with 40 other categories the PDC tracks. It is the first time in recent years that government lobbying eclipsed the general-business category – which is just a fraction of the total business lobby’s expenditures.
Local government lobbyists are mostly playing defense.
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“Two themes we have developed: The first is, do no harm,” said Mark Brown, a former Lacey mayor who lobbies for Lacey and a handful of other cities including Vancouver. “That means: Don’t take away any state-shared revenue, no unfunded mandates and no pre-emption of local control.”
So far, so good – cities and counties have avoided major disasters although they lost a fight over letting local governments create an online register for legal advertisements in lieu of paying to run ads in local newspapers.
Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, said local government groups seeking help with budget challenges were among the most active. But lawmakers, such as House budget chairman Ross Hunter and Rep. Gary Alexander of Thurston County, said they haven’t seen more activity by local government lobbyists than in other years.
“Nothing has been excessive,” said Alexander, top GOP budget writer in the House. “They are coming in to make their case about ‘not cutting me.’ ”
PDC data show that lobbyists from all interests spent $4.15 million for staff, expenses and entertainment in January – the lowest in four years. Government entities accounted for $412,503, the lowest for the public sector since 2008. Most of the spending goes to pay staff.
Lobbying firm Gordon Thomas Honeywell was the top beneficiary of local governments’ January spending in Olympia, bringing in more than $32,000 from counties and cities including Tacoma, Gig Harbor and Lakewood. Next was Doug Levy, who earned more than $29,000 for his work on behalf of cities including Puyallup, Federal Way, Everett, Kent, Renton and Redmond, followed by Mark Brown, who earned $24,900 from five cities and the state Association of Fire Chiefs.
The government spending category as compiled by the PDC reflects only the disclosures of contract lobbyists, not public employees. Government agencies report those costs separately to the PDC. The Olympia-based Freedom Foundation said governments and agencies reported spending $6 million on lobbying in 2009.
The libertarian think tank says there should be more limits on taxpayer-funded lobbying, including limitations on influence work by state agencies’ in-house employees.
“It just creates this whole kind of conflict of interest when they’re being funded by tax dollars and asking for more tax dollars,” said Amber Gunn, director of economic policy for the group.
But with most proposed bills affecting state agencies in some way, and many of them affecting local government, Levy said it’s critical to talk about those effects and tell lawmakers what’s important.
One major goal of local governments is passing House Bill 1478, which proposes to let cities and counties postpone deadlines for complying with laws – on everything from the six-year deadline for spending impact fees collected on developments to modernizing their Growth Management Act plans and meeting federal requirements for stormwater control.
And that is putting the public sector at odds with environmental groups that only a year ago were prominently fighting together for an increase in the toxics materials tax on oil products. The earlier push was to raise money to pay for stormwater projects governments need to comply with federal rules.
Environmentalists say they still want to work with cities and counties to find revenue for that purpose this year, but they also fear the weakening of rules that protect shorelines, water quality, air quality and the like.
“The budget crisis has definitely created a sense of opportunity for those who would like to weaken environmental law,” said Mo McBroom of the Washington Environmental Council. Local governments and allies are “doing so with the justification that lessening regulations that protect communities, clean water and clean air will somehow benefit communities over the long term. We think it’s crazy.”
Whether governments’ collective clout will overwhelm the typically smaller resources of the environmental lobby remains to be seen. Environmental lobbyists reported spending about $96,260 through January. That included efforts to battle the oil industry over Puget Sound oil spill legislation that cleared the House.
Mark Brown is hoping the bill includes a delay in state rules that require local governments’ vehicle fleets to switch to alternative fuels, such as electricity and biodiesel, by 2015; HB 1478, which passed the House by an 86-11 vote, sets 2018 as a more realistic deadline.
Mark Brown said Vancouver already cut more than 100 city jobs and closed a fire station, so it can ill afford to spend an estimated $28 million replacing its fleet of road graders, trucks and other equipment.
The leveling off of lobbying expenditures might reflect the downturn in the economy – just as the number of legislative bills introduced this year has slowed in response to less tax money available to pay for new proposals.
That’s not to say there’s no hope among local governments for new revenue.
Lawmakers including Reps. Dave Upthegrove, D-Des Moines, and Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, have not given up hope of scraping together some kind of stormwater aid. They noted that Dunshee managed to get $50 million in help for local jurisdictions into last year’s capital projects budget, and environmentalists also want that.
Transit agencies want temporary authority to charge a fee on vehicle licenses to pay for bus service.
And cities such as Auburn are pushing for new authority – contingent on approval of local voters – to create street maintenance utility districts. The districts would be pilot projects for selected cities and would raise money for repairing major streets by taxing businesses and residents based on their location.
But mostly, governments are trying to make sure they keep what they have.
“This year, I think the city family knows the state has no money. So we have not asked for more money but we have asked to protect some existing revenue sources like Washington Wildlife and Recreation Program and the Public Works Trust Fund,” Mark Brown said.
Lawmakers have raided such accounts in recent years to patch the state shortfall, and they will be tempted again as they face a $4.6 billion budget gap during the next biennium – after voters in November tied their hands on raising taxes by requiring two-thirds majority votes on legislative tax increases. The Legislature also could take a larger share of taxes that are split with local governments.
“They are looking at revenue sources they might never have taken a second look at,” Levy said.
The City of Olympia has no lobbyist this year, deciding it could not afford the extra $30,000. The city is relying instead on the Association of Washington Cities, believing the trade group can handle most issues.
Mayor Doug Mah said he thinks a city lobbyist is most helpful when a government is seeking help for a specific project, and he once went to Washington, D.C., with a council member to seek federal aid to revamp Olympia’s Percival Landing boardwalk.
Mah and City Manager Steve Hall said they haven’t yet made extra visits to the Capitol that a lobbyist would have made for them. But they are making a lot more phone calls. In a recent interview, Hall said his next call would be to Democratic Sen. Karen Fraser of Thurston County, because he needed help to fight a Richland senator’s proposal to limit Olympia’s right to restrict free-parking hours on streets near the Capitol.
Jordan Schrader: 360-786-1826 jordan.schrader@ thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/politics
Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688 email@example.com theolympian.com/politicsblog