Originally published at bakersfield.com on June 5, 2023.
Last month, the leaders of the Golden State’s largest municipalities held a press conference in Sacramento. As The Californian’s John Donegan reported, the California Big City Mayors “coalition called on the governor to double the budget for the state’s Homeless Housing, Assistance and Prevention Program … to $2 billion annually through 2026 and to ensure another $1.5 billion for the state’s Homekey program, which funds quick affordable housing options, like renovated former hotels and accessory dwelling units.”
A question for the group’s 13 media-savvy chief executives: Why don’t you lobby on your own time, and on your own dime?
The Southwest Public Policy Institute recently published a paper on intragovernmental advocacy in the eight states of the American Southwest. We found that in California — as in Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma — taxpayer-funded lobbying is commonplace. And battles over healthcare, criminal justice, environmental regulations, corporate welfare, homelessness, and many other important matters can be heavily swayed by public-sector entities.
Local and state governments employ three tools to affect the policymaking process. First, in-house personnel and resources — e.g., officials testify during hearings, issue statements, stage media events, 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.” (The securing of special appropriations is a particular skill.) Finally, “membership” organizations tap tax revenue to “speak” for towns, cities, districts, 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.”
It’s true that the movement to stop this misuse of tax dollars is associated with the right. And there’s no question that when government lobbies government, it’s usually for more government. The mayors’ efforts on homeless subsidies is a typical example, as is a February polemic written by the executive director of the California Transit Association. It warned that absent “dedicated operations funding, some of the state’s largest transit agencies will have to reduce service, lay off staff, and defer maintenance and modernization programs.”
But our paper reveals that the left shouldn’t overlook the way its priorities are often subverted. We documented multiple instances of government working against the “progressive” policy agenda. Throughout the American Southwest, tax revenue has been spent to combat the movement to defund police, block affordable-housing legislation, and promote school choice.
The need for reform is great, and activists of all ideological stripes should meet on common ground. California’s governor may despise the place, but Texas stands as 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.)
Leftists worried about the subversion of democracy via “dark money” should join conservatives and libertarians, and 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.