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Paying to lobby public officials for the public

Chris Fitzsimon

It has been hard to miss the headlines in your local paper about your city slashing the budget or your county commissioners scrambling to find cuts to respond to last year’s revenue shortfall or to compensate for the cuts the state has imposed.

Local school systems laid off teachers, increased class size and closed in-school health clinics. Cities and counties slashed services, laid off workers and delayed many construction projects.

Budgets have never been tighter, we are told, yet local governments across North Carolina continue to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to hire lobbyists in Washington to influence Congress, where people we elect are supposed to represent us.

The federal lobbying reports filed in the last few days show that 25 cities and counties in the state hired lobbying firms in Washington in 2009. Mecklenburg County spent $150,000 and Winston-Salem and High Point both spent $120,000. And it’s not just the bigger cities.

Wilson also spent $120,000 on a lobbyist. Ayden hired one for $40,000. So did Ahoskie and Washington County.

Most of the local governments paid The Ferguson Group to represent them. The individual lobbyist they hired was Deborah Bryant, who ran the state’s Washington Office from 1993-99.

UNC campuses have also struggled with budget cuts, reducing class offerings, postponing hiring professors, expanding the size of many classes. They have raised tuition too, forcing families to pay more to send their children to college in the middle of the worst economic crisis in 75 years.

But like local governments, UNC schools have managed to find the money to spend on lobbying. UNC-Chapel Hill hired its own lobbyist for $122,000 in 2009 and reported spending $350,000 lobbying on its own. N.C. State reported spending $140,000 and UNC-Wilmington spent $40,000.

The UNC system spent another $480,000 trying to get federal funding for a variety of university projects. At last check, every UNC campus was in the district of two Senators and one member of the House, all of whom have paid staffs.

Then there is the General Assembly. The UNC system and individual campuses have legislative liaisons (that’s the fancy official name for lobbyist) and members of the board of governors are frequently seen in the legislative building. Some of them are there every day as paid lobbyists for private interests too.

In 2009, 37 local governments in the state paid lobbyists to patrol the halls of the Legislative Building. The lobbyists are not full-time. They are hired guns with a long list of clients. Most of them are former members of the House and Senate.

So far, no member of the board of governors who is also a corporate lobbyist has been hired as a lobbyist by a local government, but that confusing day is surely coming.

The local governments that use our money to influence our lawmakers include big cities and suburbs like Cary and Concord. But small towns are playing the game too, places like Woodfin, Weldon and Louisburg.

Here’s something for local officials to think about when they are deciding which employee to lay off or which services to the community to end or reduce:

Maybe they could rely on the people in Congress and the General Assembly who are elected to represent them to speak out for their issues in Raleigh and Washington and stop asking the rest of us to pay for people to lobby our own government.

Chris Fitzsimon is executive director of NC Policy Watch.

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