Thursday, June 09, 2011

Public bodies spent millions lobbying state government

By Jamey Dunn

Public bodies paid contract lobbyists millions over the last fiscal year to try an ensure that their interests were represented at the Illinois Statehouse, according to a report released today by the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

The ICPR’s annual study found that between July1, 2009, and June 30, 2010, public bodies, including local governments, transit boards, school boards, state universities and community colleges, paid about $7.4 million to firms to lobby state policy makers. That total does not include in-house lobbying efforts conducted by employees of these entities.

“We found a slight increase in payments for contracts in effect the last two years, but a large increase in the overall number of contracts, so that total spending has climbed by over $850,000,” said David Morrison, deputy director of the ICPR. “The information gathered in this survey gives the public a better picture of how public dollars are used to monitor and lobby state government, but state lobbying regulations reveal next to nothing about much larger lobbying budgets of corporations, unions and others with lobbyists in Springfield."

Morrison said that the ICPR works to patch together a list of public bodies that hired lobbyists, using previous studies, lobbying information published by the secretary of state's office and news reports. The group then sends out Freedom of Information Act requests to all those entities, as well as to large municipalities and state universities and community colleges. He said there is a distinct possibility that some public bodies that hired lobbyists were left out of the requests. “There are 7,000 taxing bodies in the state,” Morrison said. “I think we got the big ones.” The group sent out about 300 FOIA requests in all and got about 141 responses.

The most money was spent by Chicago-area transportation agencies: the Regional Transportation Authority, the Chicago Transit Authority, Pace and Metra. Combined, they spent more than $1 million on outside lobbying — representing more than 13 percent of all spending, the report found. The Chicago Transit Authority was the biggest spender for the third year in a row, paying more than $370,000 to four lobbying firms during the last fiscal year.

Municipal governments made up more than half of respondents that hired lobbyists. The city of Metropolis spent the most at $143,7265. The village of University Park spent $135,000, the village of Bellwood spent $106,000, the city of Aurora spent $91,000 and the city of Cicero spent $88,000.

Peter Tsiolis, chief of staff for the village of Bellwood, said that municipality's spending was under a previous administration. He said a plan to create an underpass beneath a dangerous railroad intersection, which would decrease both traffic and rail congestion, and a project to combat flooding were likely the two biggest issues for which the village sought lobbying help.

However, he said the village government has shifted toward doing its own lobbying instead of hiring outside firms. “That [spending] number will be drastically decreased [in future reports],” Tsiolis said. He said he and Mayor Frank Pasquale have been doing some of the work, making trips to Springfield and phone calls to legislators. He said that in general terms, he thinks a call from a mayor can often be more effective than one from a contract lobbyists. “We’ve decided to take a more proactive internal approach to do this.”

Morrison said he hopes Illinoisans will take the information and, knowing their own community issues, use it to connect the dots and more fully understand what their local governments are doing.

Sen. Susan Garrett backed legislation during the spring session that would force public entities to disclose more of their business with lobbyists. Often, lobbyist are lawyers, as well. In some cases, public bodies refuse to release information about working with such lobbyists, citing attorney-client privilege. “My belief, and I think generally people would agree, that we should be able to see specifically how our taxpayer dollars are being spent on these lobbying efforts,” said Garrett, a Democrat from Lake Forest. She said the legislation grew out of an attempt she made to get lobbying information from Metra that was denied on such grounds. Morrison said the ICPR has had experiences similar to Garrett's when seeking information for its reports. He agreed that the loophole should be closed. “Lobbying is not lawyering.”

Garrett said citizens with whom she discusses the issue are upset, but she says there is little they can do about it. “If I fought it and couldn’t win no matter what I did, I don’t see how anyone could,” Garrett’s bill failed to gain traction this session, but she said she hopes to push it again with the backing of government watchdog groups.

Morrison said the overall point of the survey is not just to draw attention to public entities' lobbying habits but to point out all the lobbying for private entities, the details of which are not readily available to the public. “Our interest in this is getting a better sense of what lobbyists are doing, and we cannot do that for private entities.”

He said using the information from public entities, which can be attained through FOIA requests, sets up a framework for disclosure that could be required at the state level for private clients lobbying lawmakers. “It’s hard to prove a negative, but that’s kind of what we’re trying to do with this,” Morrison said. “We're trying to model what would happen if it worked, and here’s a demonstration project.”


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