Governments lobbying governments

Louis Dezseran

State and local governments in Nevada spend millions each year lobbying other levels of the government, and taxpayers get little if anything in return.

Open records requests and federal database research conducted by the Nevada Policy Research Institute have found that a significant amount of taxpayer money is spent on questionable lobbying activities.

Moreover, the total sums lost due to intergovernmental lobbying are higher than taxpayers will ever know. That's because Nevada law (NRS 394.59803) says a state or local government organization only has to report lobbying expenses that exceed $6,000 per legislative session. Thus, a given governmental organization could spend $5,999 on almost any lobbying activity and never have to report that lobbying to the state. Similarly, how much the state and local governments spend lobbying the federal government is unknown, since federal research databases generally set their thresholds at $10,000.

Notwithstanding those problems, numbers available to NPRI through open records requests show that the local governments in Nevada spent almost $7.9 million on lobbying last year. The county, cities and districts in Clark County spent the most at $2,333,998 (68 percent of the total amount reported), while government organizations in Washoe County reported spending $837,666 (24 percent of the total). Even Nye County, with an estimated population of just 40,000, spent $30,000 lobbying other levels of government.

The state and local lobbying expenditure reports are vague, but they do broadly categorize spending enough to allow taxpayers some insight into how their money was spent. Since 1999, for example, the cities and counties have spent $36,150 on gifts and entertainment related to lobbying, not including the spending on hotel stays or restaurant meals totaling $1,106,442. North Las Vegas logged $1,879 just on entertainment and gifts, Henderson spent $4,239 in the same category, and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department had the largest one-year expenditure on entertainment and gifts in the last decade at $9,219 in 2001.

In terms of lobbying the federal government, so far in 2008 alone state and local governments have spent at least $4,992,000. The largest expenditures have been by the Nevada System of Higher Education (at least $1.2 million in combined expenses), the Office of the Clark County Manager ($566,000), and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority ($270,000). Interestingly, the LVCVA spent more on lobbying than did the City of Las Vegas ($240,000).

So what do taxpayers get for their money that is spent on lobbying? If the goal of these expenditures is to get federal pork-barrel projects allocated to the state, then Nevada taxpayers are definitely not getting their money's worth. The state ranks 49th in receipt of federal aid to state and local governments per capita and 50th in federal spending per capita. Further, for each dollar that Nevadans send to Washington, D.C., the federal government returns only 73 cents in services.

While lobbying today, in the aftermath of various scandals, is in widespread disrepute, the fact remains that Americans have a constitutional right to petition the government. Yet government-to-government lobbying is a different creature entirely and one in need of full transparency. That means: not only the amount of money spent on lobbying must be disclosed, but also the details on how that money was spent.

Thus, a circumspect and responsible Nevada Legislature would, at its first new opportunity, pass legislation mandating that state and local governments keep detailed, line-item records of their lobbying expenses and make those records available on the Web. Further, record-keeping thresholds should be lowered so that all lobbying expenditures are transparent to the public.

Especially in a time when Nevada's economy is deteriorating and taxpayers are facing dramatically higher living costs, fiscal reforms of numerous kinds should be high on lawmakers' agenda. Reform of intergovernmental lobbying may not be a cure-all, but it can ease some economic difficulty for taxpayers. Reform will also bring a higher level of transparency that is desperately needed in Nevada's state and local governments.

Louis Dezseran is fiscal policy analyst at the Nevada Policy Research Institute.