Many Iowans have elected candidates who support school choice and property tax reform. However, local governments opposed to these measures use property tax dollars to fund lobbyists to fight against the will of their constituents.
While all Iowans can talk to elected officials to voice their opinions, organizations with specific interests in the process of law-making often hire lobbyists to sway politicians’ decisions. Simply put, lobbyists are professional advocates who are experts on the legislative process and who sell that expertise to Iowans who may not live and breathe politics, but who want to affect the outcome of pieces of legislation. Private firms or groups often turn to lobbyists to explain their business models and the likely effects of legislation to decision-makers. When governments use tax dollars for lobbying, however, the picture is different.
Taxpayer-funded lobbying occurs when political subdivisions, such as counties, cities, and school districts, pay lobbyists with money they have received, one way or another, from the people. The cost of lobbying can include membership fees in government-sector lobbying associations, or it can include the fees that governments pay directly to professional lobbyists. In 2022, the Iowa Association of Counties spent a total of $136,202 on lobbying, while the Iowa Association of School Boards spent $61,274, and the Iowa League of Cities spent $99,760. In addition to the efforts of those membership organizations, the cities of Bettendorf, Cedar Falls, Cedar Rapids, Coralville, Des Moines, Iowa City, Waukee, and West Des Moines all hired their own lobbyists, totaling $336,464. Linn, Marion, and Polk counties spent an additional $190,000 on lobbying.
In a state with the 10th highest property taxes in the nation, this is not a good use of taxpayer dollars. The following table shows local government lobbying expenses in Iowa. While the list is not exhaustive, it gives a snapshot of how many local tax dollars go to lobbying.
|Property Tax Levying Governments||Polk County Board of Supervisors|
|City of Des Moines||$86,500|
|City of Cedar Rapids||$85,000|
|Linn County Board of Supervisors||$60,000|
|City of West Des Moines||$55,000|
|Des Moines Public Schools||$37,440|
|City of Iowa City||$31,454|
|City of Coralville||$30,000|
|Marion County Board of Supervisors||$30,000|
|Des Moines Area Regional Transit||$24,667|
|City of Waukee||$23,010|
|City of Cedar Falls||$18,000|
|City of Bettendorf||$7,500|
|Membership Associations||Iowa State Association of Counties||$136,202|
|Urban County Coalition||$100,000|
|Iowa League of Cities||$99,760|
|Iowa Association of School Boards||$61,274|
|Iowa Association of Councils of Governments||$18,000|
|Iowa Association of County Conservation Boards||$6,500|
Source: Iowa Legislature Lobbyist Reports by Client, 2022
Often these lobbying efforts are in direct opposition to voters’ interests. For instance, the Iowa Legislature enacted extensive income tax reform in 2022 and made no secret that 2023 was going to be a year of focus on school choice and property tax reform. During the November 2022 elections, Iowans overwhelmingly elected state officials who supported those policies. However, we are now seeing lobbyists paid from property taxes fighting against these policies that Iowans want. This is not a new practice, many local governments opposed the 2019 property tax accountability and transparency bill, and at that time, too, taxpayers were forced to fund lobbyists working against them.
Making the problem more insidious, Iowa’s voters may never know what taxpayer-funded lobbyists are promoting. Many local governments have found loopholes to avoid transparency. For example, lobbyists for cities and counties are not subject to open records laws, which only apply to full-time employees, not independent contractors. Associations funded with tax dollars are also not subject to open records laws. And while all lobbyists must declare official positions on legislation, their behind-the-scenes activities go without oversight.
The scheme of taxpayer-funded lobbyists is not unique to Iowa, and states are beginning to rein it in. The high-property-tax states of Texas and Wisconsin recently introduced legislation to ban taxpayer-funded lobbying by local governments. Arizona terminated all contracts with professional lobbyists at all state agencies, boards, and commissions in 2016. Other states with limits on taxpayer-funded lobbying include Utah, Louisiana, and Virginia.
Tax dollars are intended to conduct the public’s business, not to amplify the voices of special interests. Iowa was founded upon the principle of representative government, which means citizen interests must be the top priority of those whom they elect. Taxpayer-funded lobbying, among other practices, ensures that taxpayers do not have the most-clearly-heard voices in the room. Instead, they are forced to pay lobbyists to work against them.