Sunlight required when public boards pay private lobbies

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GUEST EDITORIAL

If your tax dollars are paying to lobby North Carolina lawmakers on their behalf, local governing bodies should make sure you’re seeing a return on the investment. In a laudable move late last month that should set the tone for similar discussions statewide, the Wilson County Board of Education grappled with the prudence and the optics of contributing to the North Carolina School Boards Action Center, the N.C. School Boards Association’s lobbying and public policy arm.

Even though all its members — elected boards of education overseeing North Carolina’s 115 public school districts — are government agencies, the association is a private group. That means it’s not subject to the same transparency requirements as its member boards. The amount of taxpayer money it receives warrants careful scrutiny.

Wilson County’s school leaders weighed the merits and eventually settled on a compromise. The N.C. School Boards Action Center wanted $5,000. In a 4-2 vote, the board decided it would pitch in $2,500 in an effort to balance the benefits of having access to a professional lobbyist with the need to keep a tight grip on the public purse.

What seemed to seal the deal was the association’s reputation for effectiveness and the need to advocate for continued funding of North Carolina early college programs, which appear to be in danger of losing some state funding.

Wilson County chose wisely, and we commend the school board for its transparency. We can’t remember the last time a local governing body wrestled openly with spending public money on private lobbying. For that matter, it’s a rare discussion statewide. These annual dues are often buried in consent agendas and approved without comment.

School boards aren’t the only group of elected officials with a lobbyist walking the halls in Raleigh. Many of the 200 lobbyists registered with the N.C. Office of the Secretary of State represent governmental clients.

There’s the North Carolina League of Municipalities for cities and towns, the N.C. Association of County Commissioners, the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association, the N.C. Troopers Association, the N.C. Association of Registers of Deeds, and the list goes on.

Can’t mayors, school board members, county commissioners and sheriffs just speak for themselves? They can and do — most maintain good working relationships with their local legislators. But not all politics is local. Getting a bill heard on the House or Senate floor or tweaking a budget line item requires the ear of legislative leaders and key committee chairs, and that’s where familiarity and relationships matter. Paid professional lobbying is an unfortunate political necessity.

There’s also an arms-race mentality. If charter schools and traditional public schools are at loggerheads, school boards don’t want the charters’ lobbyist to be the only one with a seat at the table.

It’s unrealistic to suggest public agencies shouldn’t fund legislative lobbying. What’s entirely reasonable and fair, however, is to insist that local governments lobby in their constituents’ interest since those taxpayers are ultimately the ones picking up the tab.

Governing bodies should discuss contributions to government trade groups openly in public meetings. Additionally, these boards should make their respective associations’ legislative agendas available through the city, county and school system websites so you can determine whether the groups are advocating for your best interests.

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