Saturday, June 15, 2019

OCPA column: A much-needed agency lobbying reform

A much-needed agency lobbying reform
By Jonathan Small

Should agencies be allowed to indirectly fund politicians’ campaigns with taxpayer dollars? If you think the answer is “no”—as I do—then you should welcome Gov. Kevin Stitt’s decision to ban agency use of contract lobbyists.

The Stitt administration found 33 state agencies, boards and commissions have private contracts with lobbyists and spent about $1.5 million per year for each of the last two years on lobbying. Now he’s implemented a ban on that practice.

This is good policy on several fronts, including government transparency and accountability.

For one thing, agencies’ practice of hiring contract lobbyists indirectly allowed taxpayer money to land in politicians’ campaign coffers. While state agencies cannot contribute to political campaigns, contract lobbyists can. Thus, when agencies hire contract lobbyists, they are sending taxpayer money to lobbyists who then often contribute to legislators’ campaigns. This creates a roundabout funnel in which agencies effectively use taxpayer money to fund political campaigns. As President Trump would say: Not good.

Agency use of contract lobbyists also impedes public access to open records. If an agency uses an in-house legislative liaison to communicate with legislators, those communications are public record and may be obtained by any Oklahoma citizen. But if an outside lobbyist is used, that lobbyist’s direct communications with legislators are not subject to open-records law. Does anyone think new layers of secrecy will produce better government for Oklahomans?

Most importantly, Oklahomans elect the governor to run the executive branch, and no agency should be pursuing any objective that isn’t first cleared with the governor’s office. A major focus of the Stitt administration has been to reform government so the head of the executive branch truly runs the executive branch. Stitt’s ban on agencies’ use of outside lobbyists is in the same vein with his successful effort to gain the power to appoint the leaders of five major state agencies.

While technically legal, agencies’ use of contract lobbyists never passed the smell test. This is especially true when agencies would scream “poverty” even as they diverted taxpayer money to contract lobbyists who would then lobby the Legislature to provide the agencies more taxpayer money.

For too long, Oklahoma government has been a system in which rogue agencies work at cross-purposes with each other, the governor, and the will of the voters. Under Stitt, Oklahoma’s executive branch will have a true executive leader who gets the credit for success but shoulders the blame for failure.

That’s a welcome, and much-needed, change.

Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.


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