PEER: Ban private lobbyists for public entities

Published 4:07 pm Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Mississippi’s public universities, community colleges and state agencies should be banned from using tax dollars to hire lobbyists, a legislative watchdog group recommends in a new report.

“The concern is that state entities are using taxpayers’ money to lobby when that entity’s managers have the expert knowledge to respond to any information needs that the Legislature might have,” according to the report from PEER, the Joint Legislative Committee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review.

The report is dated Aug. 12 but was released to the public Monday. It says the hiring of private lobbyists by public agencies or colleges “constitutes a waste of the state’s scarce resources.”

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“The money used for contract lobbyists could be used for ongoing programs and services,” the report says.

Some legislators have complained for years about agencies or colleges using public money to hire people to lobby for more public money.

Other legislators, though, say they have no problem with the practice because the lobbyists help university presidents and other officials gather information that helps legislators make decisions about budgets and other items.

Senate Ethics Committee Chairman Merle Flowers, R-Southaven, said Monday that one of his subcommittees will hold hearings in November to gather more information about entities hiring lobbyists.

“The taxpayers have a right to know where their money’s going, how it’s being spent,” said Flowers, who also serves on PEER.

The PEER report says North Carolina, Florida and Louisiana already ban state agencies from using public money to hire contract lobbyists. It says Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and Tennessee have no such prohibition.

The report says South Carolina has laws specifically authorizing public agencies to hire private lobbyists.

The report from PEER says the Mississippi attorney general’s office has issued an opinion that community and junior colleges may use public money to pay their presidents’ association to hire lobbyists. The report also said the Legislature has given the state College Board the power to determine whether the public universities may hire lobbyists. Each state agency has the power to determine whether state law allows it to hire private lobbyists.

State agencies and colleges spent nearly $1.3 million in public money to hire private lobbyists from January 2003 to December 2007, according to the report. But the committee also said it “cannot attest to the accuracy of this amount” because state laws about reporting lobbyists’ compensation are vague.

The largest example of spending in the PEER report was the Mississippi Department of Transportation, which paid one lobbyist $363,769 over four years, an average of $90,942 a year. The smallest example of spending was the University of Mississippi, which paid one lobbyist $7,500 for one year.

The report said records in the secretary of state’s office showed no listings for private lobbyists working for community or junior colleges from 2003 to 2007.

The PEER report does not discuss the hiring of private lobbyists by associations or organizations related to state government, such as university foundations. It also did not address private lobbying for other public entities such as city or county governments.

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