Where's your tax money going? Hundreds of thousands spent to influence state lawmakers

Local governments spent $220,000 to influence state lawmakers in 2009

News-DemocratMay 21, 2010 

Local units of government and public agencies in the metro-east spent about $220,000 in taxpayers' money last year to influence their own state government, according to a new report from a government reform group.

Leaders of the local agencies and government bodies say having a lobbyist allows them to keep tabs on important issues in Springfield -- including their state money.

The report by Illinois Campaign for Political Reform shows that in 2009, the following local government units and agencies had these lobbying expenditures:

* Madison County Transit, $67,000.

* Southwestern Illinois College, $60,000.

* St. Clair County Transit District, $40,000.

* Village of Swansea, $40,000.

* Madison County Regional Office of Education, $12,000.

* Collinsville Metropolitan Exposition Authority, $1,500.

The Southern Illinois University system also spent $123,750 last year on lobbying the state legislature.

Statewide, 119 local units of government and public agencies spent almost $6.4 million in 2009 to lobby state government.

"It's important for the public to know how much their governments are spending on contract lobbyists and what those lobbyists are doing to influence state government," said Cynthia Canary, director of the reform group. "Because those contracts and invoices are public documents, we do know who is getting paid and how much. In some cases, we also can learn a little about the issues they are trying to affect."

Madison County Regional Superintendent of Schools Bob Daiber said he's in regular contact with state representatives and senators from the metro-east, but his office's $1,000-per-month lobbying contract with former Democratic state Rep. Steve Davis provides "a direct pipeline" to Springfield.

Daiber, a Democrat, said Madison County schools "would have lost millions of dollars" if Davis hadn't fought to preserve one particular type of state money for poor school districts.

"That's kind of the way the business is being done. We either speak up and try to go after things, or we don't get them," Daiber said.

The office's contract for a lobbyist is not put out for bids. Daiber said Davis' contract began about five years ago under former superintendent Harry Briggs.

"I think the person who you have lobby for you is someone you trust," Daiber said.

Swansea village administrator John Openlander said the village uses a lobbyist "for contacting the state departments, state agencies that we have grants with, principally the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, and Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, and for arranging meetings with the state representatives and senators and congressmen."

When asked whether Swansea officials wouldn't be able to get the attention of state officials without using a lobbyist, Openlander said: "I can tell you what we've contracted the firm for. Whether it's a good use of money or not, that's not my decision. It's the decision of the board of trustees."

Swansea's contract with Springfield-based Governmental Consulting Solutions is not awarded on a competitive basis, and began under a previous mayor. Current Mayor Jim Rauckman could not be reached for comment.

St. Clair County Transit District director Bill Grogan said having a lobbyist "helps get our message across in the General Assembly on things that we feel are beneficial to the transit district or oppose things that are detrimental to the district."

For example, Grogan said an association of retailers might propose a cut in sales taxes, which are the primary source of funding for transit districts. The retailers would likely have a lobbyist, he said.

"That's an example I made up, but it illustrates the point," Grogan said. "There are a number of other interests that have lobbyists in Springfield, and believe me, the members of the General Assembly are hearing from them loud and clear. What we're seeking is to make sure the other side of every story is also heard."

Grogan said the contract for his district's lobbying firm, Sorling, Northrup, Hanna, Cullen & Cochran Ltd. of Springfield, was not awarded on a competitive basis. Grogan said the district checked around and "thought they would do well to represent us."

Contact reporter Brian Brueggemann at bbrueggemann@bnd.com or 692-9481.

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