Who's advocating for your city at the Utah legislature?
Jan 30, 2019 11:31AM
By Erin Dixon
To communicate with state legislators, many cities turn to professional lobbyists for help. (courtesy/pixabay)
By Erin Dixon | [email protected]
When a bill is approved at the Utah State Capitol, the consequences can be cascading and far reaching. The Utah State General Legislative session runs from Jan. 28 to Mar. 14. During that time, there may be a bill that can negatively affect a city, financially and systematically.
For cities to keep up with the thousand plus bills during a session, there must be some communication with legislators. City governments must make their own time and effort; there is no official meeting with state and city leaders. And with government officials constantly changing with each election, relationships can be difficult to maintain.
One resource some cities turn to is lobbyists.
A “‘Lobbyist’ means: an individual who is employed by a principal; or an individual who contracts for economic consideration, other than reimbursement for reasonable travel expenses, with a principal to lobby a public official.” (Utah State Code Chapter 11)
Lobbying is defined as “communicating with a public official for the purpose of influencing the passage, defeat, amendment, or postponement of legislative or executive action.” (Utah State Code Chapter 11)
There are strict rules in state code that dictate exactly how a lobbyist behaves with government officials, down to the size of font on their name tags.
Most importantly is the required full disclosure of expenditures to government officials. Lobbyists are required to submit these disclosures to the state at the end of every quarter. This disclosure includes when, why, where and how the money was spent on an official, whether it be travel, lodging or food (above the value of $10).
A professional lobbying firm, Foxley and Pignanelli, is employed by West Jordan City. Renae Cowley, associate lobbyist for F&P, explained that a lobbyist is not as much an influence but an informer.
“We present lawmakers with facts and data that inform them of the broader scopes and impact of the laws that they are passing,” Cowley said. “A lot of times, they are unaware of these unintended consequences.
At the end of the day, we don’t have a vote.”
For example, in 2017 Operation Rio Grande was implemented that cleared Union Station of homeless individuals. Many moved to areas around the Jordan River. While there were other initiatives to help find housing for the homeless, it is not a problem solved. Now the cities along the Jordan River are responsible for the homeless but were not given any additional police resources or funding. It is now up to those cities to come up with the resources.
This is particularly a problem in West Jordan, a city that does not have a homeless shelter. Councilmember Alan Anderson described how this is a financial issue for the city and part of the motivation for their property tax increase.
“We get the added crime for moving the Rio Grande, and we have to pay [West Valley and South Salt Lake] with homeless shelters with [sales tax] that we collect, which is how we’re funding police and fire,” Anderson said. “We have to make adjustments because the legislature changes things.”
Having a knowledgeable voice to communicate these types of issues can make a big difference to a city. Lobbyists maintain professional relationships that may be difficult for individual cities to maintain while taking care of internal city needs.
West Jordan Mayor Jim Riding explained his endorsement of lobbyists. “You get someone who’s elected, and he may have been a CEO of a tech company or a shoe salesman,” Riding said. “But now he’s going to go up and lobby, when the lobbyists are the ones that have the background and experience and know the people.”
For West Jordan, lobbyists efforts have been fruitful.
West Jordan, a city trying to boost its economic base, has been unable to invite a new car dealership. Businesses are required to pay full value on property (residents pay 40 percent) and car dealerships can significantly lift city budgets. State code prohibited similar car dealerships from being closer than 20 miles to another, and because of existing dealerships in neighboring cities, West Jordan was unable to invite a car dealership into their city limits. Lobbyists Foxley and Pignanelli were tasked with addressing this issue.
“[West Jordan City Council] hired lobbyists to shrink the size of the circumference of the restriction that existed for a new car dealership,” said West Jordan City Manager David Brickey. “It used to be 20 miles, and they were able to cut it in half down to 10. For the first time since that enactment of law and it’s restriction, West Jordan could now be the home of a new car dealership.”
Other cities choose to send their own leaders, rather than professional lobbyists. In recent years, Sandy City employed many professionals. But, when Mayor Kurt Bradburn was elected, he decreased the number of paid lobbyists and gave much of that responsibility to his deputy mayor, Evelyn Everton.
“Having me here full time made it so that we didn’t need so many contract lobbyists,” Everton said. “We picked the best of the best that we had. Some of our lobbyists are focused on water issues, some of them are focused on securing state funding for infrastructure, and some are kind of catch all and helping to advocate for the city.”
Everton explained the need that Sandy sees in lobbying with the state legislature.
“These legislators are going to see about 1,000 bills over 45 days,” she said. “There is no possible way for them to know everything about every bill. A lobbyist’s job is to really understand how this legislation does affect certain industries and how it affects our city. That can be anything from how it affects our watershed, how it affects our tax dollars, how it affects our infrastructure or how it will affect our fire and police department.”
Though lobbyists are a useful and loud voice on Capitol Hill, they are not the only voice, nor are they the loudest.
“When paid lobbyists go up against a group of highly organized citizens, we lose every single time,” Cowley said. “Politics is for those who show up. Private citizens speaking on their own behalf for their own behalf are far more powerful than the paid lobbyists.”