Less lobbying part of local budget solution

Published 10:50 am Friday, August 19, 2011

Daily Herald editorial

As Austin city leaders struggle with a choice between raising taxes and reducing services, we hope they will look closely at one city expense that, small as it is, provides minimal benefit for residents — specifically, we think the city should opt out of the approximately $40,000 in annual dues it pays to organizations which are primarily involved in lobbying lawmakers on behalf of cities.

The contradiction built into using tax money to pay lobbyists to ask lawmakers to give cities more taxpayer money should be obvious — it is like paying to have dollars moved from someone’s right pocket to the left, that “someone” being the taxpayers. But almost every Minnesota city, county and school district belongs to one or more organizations that is involved in lobbying.

Because Minnesota has an elaborate system of redistributing state tax revenues to local governments, its cities endlessly scramble to ensure that redistribution continues and, what is more, is done in a way that favors them. There’s a clear advantage to individual cities in winning that scramble, even if the total tax burden throughout Minnesota is unchanged as a result.

What isn’t clear is why there is a need to pay professional lobbyists for their help. Surely a word from city council members and city staff to their local legislators would be as effective — after all, a lawmaker representing his district well is presumably quite interested in local officials’ ideas and thoughts. Why pay to have the same work done by a high-priced lobbyist from the Twin Cities?

Realistically, there are some benefits to cities (and counties and schools) for spending tax money to join regional organizations. If those organizations did not use members’ dues to hire lobbyists, or if there was a “limited membership” whose money didn’t go for lobbying, we’d be all for Austin having such a membership.

As it stands, however, there’s no evidence that money spent on slick lobbyists provides any real benefits or benefits which could not be gained less expensively — certainly not enough benefits to raise property owners’ taxes to pay for the service.