Many lobbyists representing local governments showed up on Thursday to speak against a bill that would directly impact them. The bill — Senate Study Bill 1261 — would drastically increase the transparency of local government lobbying efforts in Des Moines.
That bill is scheduled to go in front of the full Senate Government Oversight committee today.
Pete McRoberts of the ACLU spoke in favor of the bill. He said a government agency has a lot of leeway in terms of expressing the interest of its constituents, but it should be done in a transparent fashion so voters can make the final decision.
“What we are arguing for is the simple idea that when government acts, people need to know what’s happening,” McRoberts said.
He said since former Governor Terry Branstad took office in 2011, the top 10 cities in Iowa have spent $2.5 million on legislative lobbying. He acknowledged city council members have First Amendment rights like anyone else, but doesn’t believe those things should be done in darkness.
Tyler Raygor of Americans For Prosperity said his group believes Iowans deserve transparency at all levels of government.
Victoria Sinclair of Iowans for Tax Relief also spoke in support of the bill. She said the group appreciates the transparency it offers.
“Frankly if we’re going to be using taxpayer dollars for lobbying efforts then people have a right to know exactly how those dollars are being used,” she said.
Other groups that are registered and/or spoke in support of the bill include the Iowa Association of Realtors, Iowa Retail Federation and Landlords of Iowa.
A lengthy list of lobbyists representing local government interests all fell into the undecided category.
Senator Tony Bisignano (D-Des Moines) spoke out adamantly against the bill.
“I can tell you local governments now more than ever need representation against state government,” Bisignano said. “State government has eroded the rights and the funds of local government like I’ve never seen before.”
He said most people in the room take something from the government.
“Taxpayers in some way, some fashion support each and every one of you,” Bisignano said. “Whether you’re Walmart and we’re paying for health care or we’re paying for food stamps to support your employees — that’s a government subsidy, OK. So let’s done act like because we’re private sector that some how we’re above government employees or government lobbyists. I resent that.”
Bisignano did highlight the importance of tax dollars. He said he’s worked for the government for 41 years.
“I probably have more government hours and days and weeks and years than anybody in this room,” he said. “And I know how they work. But I can tell you there’s a distinct difference in what the goals and values of state government are and has been and what local government is.”
Realtors and developers, Bisignano said, benefit from taxpayers through Tax Increment Financing. Schools have been cut and need lobbyists at the Capitol, he added. He took issue with those who support the legislation saying they believe transparency is important.
“BS,” he said. “You only like transparency when it works for you around here. Those are some great words we use around here. But I can tell you, you want transparency only when you want it. When it works against you, we close our doors and we cut our deals. You don’t get to see how we do things.”
Bisignano said he had an amendment to level the playing field. Whether a lobbyist works for a government entity or a private business, his amendment requires lobbyists to file annual reports explaining their position on all bills and amendments.
He chided lobbyists for registering undecided on many bills.
“Don’t be giving me this undecided crap,” he said. “You’re either for it or you’re against it. Let’s own up and be honest about it.”
He said the lobbyists for private organizations like the bill because they don’t like local government lobbyist holding them accountable.
Sometimes, Bisignano said, the government’s interest is not the same as the taxpayer’s interest.
“When you say government is supposed to represent all taxpayers, there’s conflict sometimes,” he said. “Sometimes it’s in their best interest, sometimes it’s not. So I get really irritated about this bill just for the fact it keeps on life support. If we truly want transparency, I’ll give you transparency.”
Bisignano continued his diatribe against the bill. He said businesses should list on their websites all the tax credits they score each legislative session. He said if people are disenchanted with their local government, they should vote them out of office.
“Citizens depend on their elected officials to do the right thing,” Bisignano said. “I don’t sign up as a taxpayer to know everything. I just have to think you’re going to be the right guy for me so I vote for you.”
He then said the Iowa Legislature is the most secretive body in the state.
“Open up your caucuses,” he said. “You want to know how shit really goes down, open up the caucuses. Let everybody come in and watch us do our business — make our sausage. Why don’t we do that? Let’s don’t apply things to people that we’re too ashamed to do ourselves. Let’s don’t put the onerous stuff on other government as if we’re above them because we are not above them — we are worse than them.
“We go to caucus, decide how to vote and the votes 32-18. Sometimes there’s no discussion. You have no idea how we reach that decision. You call that open and transparent? Are you kidding me? If you really want to know what the legislature is doing, get in the caucus. That’s where decisions are made. Not on the floor. This is just showtime. Come to rehearsal.”
Senator Amy Sinclair (R-Allerton) said she approaches the issue from a perspective where she sees both sides. She’s a former county supervisor and, obviously, also a taxpaying citizen. Sinclair pointed to the property tax issue as one where local governments and the taxpayers local government is intended to represent are on completely different sides of the issue.
“The call I’ve gotten the most, the email I’ve gotten the most this year, it’s not an exaggeration, is on property taxes,” she said.
Yet she sees these local government lobbyist try to sway legislators against the property tax relief bills.
“The citizens who are calling me that local governments represent, they’re lobbying efforts are in diametric opposition to what the people are asking me for,” she said. “And that’s a problem. That’s a problem that exists in the process of the people being disconnected from those who are representing them and the actions that they’re taking.”
Sinclair said the idea that she’s working to stifle free speech with the bill is laughable as well. She said she prefers to hear everyone’s opinion and utilizes lobbyists more than any other human in the Senate.