Laws to restrict lobbyists have been introduced before but never made it into law.By Jon Delano

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Local municipal and county governments have spent over $40 million in tax dollars on lobbyists and lobbying organizations.

That’s the conclusion of a conservative think-tank in Harrisburg.

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“At least $42 million spent in taxpayer money either on hiring contract lobbyists or in joining associations that have lobbyists as part of their work,” Nate Benefield, vice president of the Commonwealth Foundation, told KDKA political editor Jon Delano on Wednesday.

Benefield said the Commonwealth Foundation, through public disclosures and right-to-know requests, found many counties, cities and their authorities hired lobbyists or joined associations that did.

“This is very hidden. Most taxpayers don’t know that this is happening,” Benefield said.

Benefield said Allegheny, Beaver, Greene, Fayette and Washington counties, the city of Pittsburgh, and the Pittsburgh School District used tax dollars to hire lobbyists, and he calls it unnecessary spending.

“All of these local governments have their own state representatives. They have their own elected officials who can go and advocate on behalf of themselves, not hiring outside groups to lobby for them,” he said.

While some did hire their own lobbyists, others joined associations that lobby for them.

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Doug Hill, retired director of the County Commissioners Association of Pennsylvania, defends the practice.

“Local governments are lobbying on behalf of the taxpayers, and the stakes for the taxpayers are high because if the state or federal government gets it wrong, local services are going to cost more, or we’re going to be prohibited from delivering those services or have other impediments in our way,” Hill said.

Hill said contract lobbyists offer local governments expertise on particular projects.

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“You need someone to help you navigate the process,” Hill said.

“A lobbyist isn’t there to buy votes. A lobbyist is there to help you arrange the meetings, help you to understand the process, to help you understand the application or permitting issues,” Hill added.

One state lawmaker disagrees.

“Lawmakers are elected officials and they need to do their job, and they get elected to be the advocate for the people and the entities in their districts,” PA Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hill, a York Republican, said.

She has introduced Senate Bill 802 to change the law.

Twenty-seven states, including Pennsylvania, have no laws restricting local counties, authorities or municipalities from using taxpayer money to hire lobbyists, and no laws to prohibit them from joining associations that use lobbyists.

S.B. 802 would prohibit any Commonwealth or legislative entity or any county, city, borough, township, or school district from hiring a lobbyist, a lobbying firm or political consultant.

“It’s a pretty simple measure. It precludes any governmental entity from using taxpayer dollars to influence another governmental entity, and it includes the legislature,” said Phillips-Hill.

“I am empathetic to the concerns that municipalities raise, but I say to them, they need to build relationships with their legislators, bring them in, talk to them because that is exactly what a legislator is paid to do,” Phillips-Hill said.

Both contract lobbyists and taxpayer-funded associations say the provide on behalf of local governments needed expertise to state lawmakers and government agencies, and that benefits taxpayers.

Laws to restrict lobbyists have been introduced before but never made it into law.

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S.B. 802 does have the support of both the Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate, as well as some very conservative and liberal members. But so far, no vote on the Senate floor.