State agency lobbyists in Republican crosshairs

Dec 7, 2010

Governor Chris Gregoire says she will call a budget-cutting special session of the legislature before the year is out. As the state’s budget crisis worsens, the governor and lawmakers are looking to save money anywhere they can. One target in the crosshairs: lobbyists for state agencies.

The Washington Department of Printing recently raised eyebrows when it put out a request for a contract lobbyist for the upcoming legislative session. The agency was willing to pay as much as twenty-five thousand dollars for a legislative liaison. Jason Mercier with the free market Washington Policy Center calls it a

“Poke in the eye to a taxpayer seeing an agency that’s questionably not a core function of government that’s being targeted for elimination going out and using taxpayer resources to fight for its own existence.”

Within days, the State Printer’s request was cancelled. The official reason: tight budget times.

But Senator Joe Zarelli, the ranking Republican on the Senate budget committee, says the issue goes beyond the Department of Printing. He notes many state agencies employ a full-time lobbyist.

“What we’re talking about here are people hired for the majority purpose of lobbying the legislature whether they be on a contractual basis or actual state employees,” says Joe Zarelli.

Zarelli proposes to eliminate all state agency legislative liaisons in light of the state’s projected nearly $6 billion shortfall. This isn’t the first time the issue has come up. In 2003, in the midst of another budget crisis, lawmakers voted to ban agency lobbyists.

But then-Governor Gary Locke vetoed the ban saying it would – quote - “unduly limit the ability of agencies to respond to legislative inquiries.”

That’s a legitimate concern, according to Sheryl Hutchison, a veteran of state agencies now with Washington’s Employment Security Department.

“Legislative work, even in an agency, can be full-time year-round,” says Sheryl Hutchison.

Hutchison is a former legislative liaison herself and says it’s different from being a traditional lobbyist.

“There’s an advocacy role at times, but not lobbying in the way that you think about taking legislators out, talking to them over dinner and that kind of thing,” says Hutchison.

A review of Public Disclosure Commission filings shows agency liaisons are typically well paid: in the range of $70,000 to $100,000 a year. But there’s no evidence that contracting out for lobbying services is widespread.

Mark Funk is a longtime Olympia-watcher and public affairs consultant with clients on both sides of the political spectrum. He says a flat-out ban on legislative liaisons could lead to legislative mistakes.

"You have to have those people interfacing between agencies and lawmakers and their committee staffs. I think to put a blanket over them would probably result in problems down the line,” says Funk.

A recent report by the conservative Evergreen Freedom Foundation found that state and local government entities in Washington spent $6 million last year on lobbying.