Originally published at tucson.com on June 29, 2023.
As the smackdown over school choice in Arizona intensifies, taxpayers in the Grand Canyon State should know that they’re paying for both attacks on and defenses of the Empowerment Scholarship Account Program.
The Arizona School Boards Association charges that “vouchers” impose “unsustainable” costs and are “a massive blow to our K-12 public schools.” Dozens of school boards have echoed the organization’s condemnation of education choice.
Meanwhile, Tom Horne, the state’s elected Superintendent of Public Instruction, is a champion of Empowerment Scholarship Accounts. The website of the Arizona Department of Education — the bureaucracy he runs — recently tweeted that school choice “will not bankrupt the state,” and linked to an interview Horne gave in which he explained “how he is empowering parents and students.”
Local and state governments employ three tools to affect the policymaking process. First, in-house personnel and resources — e.g., officials testify during hearings, conduct press conferences, issue media releases, write op-eds, and post on Facebook and Twitter. Second, even the smallest of government entities often find that hiring a professional influencer, or an entire lobbying firm, can yield major legislative “wins.” (Securing special appropriations is a particular skill.) Finally, “membership” organizations tap tax revenue to “speak” for cities, counties, government educators and administrators, law-enforcement professionals, etc.
Whatever form it takes, taxpayer-financed lobbying is wrong, because it makes citizens fund “messaging” they may oppose. As the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, in a 2018 decision, when government compels speech, “individuals are coerced into betraying their convictions,” and forcing “free and independent individuals to endorse ideas they find objectionable is always demeaning.”
The Southwest Public Policy Institute recently published a paper on intragovernmental advocacy in the eight states of the American Southwest. We found that Arizona is no different than Texas or Utah or California: taxpayer-funded lobbying is commonplace. Battles over corporate welfare, occupational licensing, criminal justice, environmental regulations, and many other matters of importance to everyday life are heavily swayed by public-sector entities.
It’s true that the movement to stop this misuse of tax dollars is associated with the right. But our research reveals that the left should be concerned as well. As Horne’s activities demonstrate, government is capable of deploying its considerable resources against the “progressive” agenda. Throughout the American Southwest, tax revenue has been spent to combat the movement to defund police, block affordable-housing legislation, and promote potentially unconstitutional social-media regulation.
The need for reform is great, and activists of all ideological stripes should meet on common ground. Texas offers a national model for prohibiting taxpayer-funded lobbying. There, statutes forbid “a state agency” from using “appropriated money” to “employ, as a regular full-time or part-time or contract employee, a person who is required … to register as a lobbyist.” In addition, “membership dues to an organization that pays part or all of the salary of a person who is required … to register as a lobbyist” are forbidden. And state agencies cannot “attempt to influence the passage or defeat of a legislative measure,” although use of “resources to provide public information or to provide information responsive to a request” is, understandably, permissible. Sadly, efforts to apply the law to local governments have been unsuccessful. (The campaign is opposed, unsurprisingly, by the County and District Clerks’ Association of Texas, Texas Association of Community Schools, Texas Association of School Administrators, Texas’ Big City Mayors Group, Texas State Association of Fire and Emergency Districts, Justices of the Peace and Constables Association of Texas, Texas Association of County Auditors, Sheriffs’ Association of Texas, and Texas Municipal League.)
In Arizona and throughout the American Southwest, it’s time for good-government activists worried about the subversion of democracy via “dark money” to join conservatives and libertarians to put an end to taxpayer-funded lobbying. No matter what the issue, no matter what the bill, no matter what the ordinance, no matter what the regulation, intergovernmental advocacy is compelled speech, and as such, a violation of the First Amendment.