Carolina Journal News Reports
RALEIGH — North Carolina’s courts have ruled it is legal for local governments to use taxpayer resources to lobby the General Assembly on legislation, and that’s exactly what nearly two dozen cities and counties are registered to do as the May 16 legislative short session nears.
As of March 28, eight North Carolina counties and 10 municipalities were listed as principals in the North Carolina General Assembly Lobbying Directory. The local governments are sprinkled among more than 660 lobbyists and 700 principals registered to lobby on behalf of businesses, industries, and advocates for and against specific causes and issues.
The legality of local government lobbying is addressed in an April 2011 “N.C. Local Government Law Blog” by UNC School of Government Professor of Public Law and Government Robert Joyce. He reviews three cases — North Carolina ex rel Horne v. Chafin, Bardolph v. Arnold, and Dollar v. Cary. Joyce concludes:
“So, it appears, local governments may use public funds to try to influence the General Assembly in a particular direction and to put out informational materials regarding issues. They may not, however, use public funds to try to influence the outcome of an election — either an election for office or a referendum on a public issue.”
While the legality of local government lobbying is settled, the question of whether the practice is appropriate isn’t.
“What’s happening is that people are being forced to pay taxes that end up supporting lobbying efforts that may be against their best interests and principles,” said Becki Gray, vice president for outreach for the John Locke Foundation and a registered lobbyist for JLF, which publishes Carolina Journal. “Let’s say you feel strongly about a contentious issue in your community that’s being considered by the legislature, or you prefer belt tightening to tax increases. Your tax money can be used by your city or county to argue against you.”
Ellis Hankins, executive director of the North Carolina League of Municipalities, counters that based on case law, local governments have a responsibility to communicate with the General Assembly. “It says that not only can municipalities and counties expend some public funds within reason in communicating with members of the General Assembly, but that they have the responsibility to communicate and work with members of the General Assembly because that’s where all the authority that governs what a city and county do comes from. That’s an important principle.”
Gray said cities and counties already have legislative representation from General Assembly members who were elected to represent constituents in their districts. But local issues are increasingly complex, Hankins said, and sometimes legislators ask for input from his group, which focuses mainly on issues with statewide impact, or from city- or county-specific lobbyists and liaisons who usually focus on bills affecting their local community.
North Carolina counties with registered lobbyists include several from the coastal region – Pamlico, Beaufort, Camden, Hyde, and Currituck. The others are Granville, Person and Stanly. The 10 registered municipalities are scattered throughout North Carolina: Creedmoor, Morganton, Salisbury, Wilson, Boone, Butner, Cary, Clayton, Stantonsburg, and Bald Head Island.
Five local governments have liaisons registered with the Secretary of State: the cities of Wilmington and Charlotte, and the counties of Gaston, Mecklenburg, and Durham.
Norma Houston, a lecturer at the UNC School of Government, said the current number of local government lobbyists squares with what she recalls when working at the legislature. Houston served as chief of staff to former Senate President Pro Tem Marc Basnight from 1993 to 2003, and again from 2005 to 2006.
“In my experience, every session that I worked, there always were some lobbyists that represented local governments,” Houston said. She remembers contract lobbyists or employee lobbyists monitoring a slate of issues or the budget process in general. Other lobbyists were more issue-specific. “There might be a particular local bill. There might be a funding issue in the budget for the unit of government they were advocating for. So it really was a mix.”
Houston said the distinction between a lobbyist and a liaison relates to their employment status. A lobbyist is someone who isn’t an employee of the unit of government, who is hired by the government and compensated for advocating for the government’s interests. A local government liaison is an employee of the unit of government whose primary job duty includes lobbying the legislature on behalf of the employer.
The 23 cities and counties with their own lobbyists represent only a small percentage of the hundreds of cities, towns, and counties in North Carolina. Most are members of the League of Municipalities or the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners. The league has four lobbyists registered to lobby the General Assembly. NCACC has five.
Local governments pay thousands of dollars in membership dues to both groups. The City of Winston-Salem, for example, lists $46,810 for the league in its 2011-2012 budget. Wake County’s fiscal year 2012 budget includes a $64,484 line item for NCACC. Gray points to both groups’ advocacy goals as examples of how public money — in the form of dues paid to these groups — can be used to lobby for policies not supported by all taxpayers.
The league’s legislative goals include support of legislation allowing all municipalities to adopt a prepared meals and beverage tax, and to adopt impact fees on development. NCACC’s legislative goals include seeking legislation to give counties the ability to impose on residents “by resolution or, at the option of the Board of Commissioners, by voter referendum any or all revenue options from among those that have been authorized for any other county.”
Gray believes many taxpayers don’t realize their money is being used toward these goals. “If they did, there would be an outcry.”
Donna Martinez is a contributor to Carolina Journal and co-host of Carolina Journal Radio.