How Cities Can Influence State Legislatures

by Aaron Martin // Nov 27, 2015 State & Local

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When the Nevada Legislature altered the state’s sales tax distribution formula a few years ago, the city of Elko lost millions in tax revenues to surrounding communities.

Because of a slowdown in mining, Elko had seen a slight dip in population. As a result, millions in sales tax revenues generated in Elko, flowed into surrounding communities that had recorded slight population gains.

“We had to be very aggressive in that instance because it was resulting in a financial crisis,” Curtis Calder, the city manager of Elko, told CQ Roll Call’s StateTracker blog.

Elko hired a lobbying firm to do the city’s bidding at the statehouse in Carson City. That contributed to the passage of a new bill that reinstated the old sales tax distribution formula, which directly benefited the city of Elko.

State and local governments are challenged to maintain service levels despite increased costs and decreased funding in the modern era of sequestration and state-imposed spending caps. That’s led many municipalities to deploy creative strategies to gain influence over state lawmakers.

Lobbying Brings Results, But Faces Opposition

After the city of Elko successfully lobbied the Nevada Legislature to change the sales tax distribution formula, city officials decided to retain a lobbying presence at the state capitol in subsequent legislative sessions.

This year, Elko paid the lobbying firm Griffin Communications Group $25,000 to serve as the eyes and ears of city officials in the statehouse.

“Because our sessions are relatively short, and they’re only every other year, we feel it’s a pretty good use of money,” Calder said. “We’re charged $25,000 for the session, whether it’s a specific legislative issue or whether it’s just to keep us informed and to advocate for us.”

Right now, Elko’s top legislative priority is restoration of air services from Elko to Reno. But the lobbying firm also analyzes bills and lets city officials know when to make the five-hour drive to Carson City to testify before a committee.

City Lobbying is Nothing New

The practice of city and county governments hiring lobbying firms to gain influence in state legislatures isn’t a recent occurrence. In fact, it’s become so commonplace in Texas that there’s an effort to rein the practice in.

There are 732 lobbyists registered on behalf of city and county governments in Texas. Overall, they account for 42 percent of the 1,741 lobbyists registered with the Texas Ethics Commission.

A bill pending in the Texas Legislature would bring an end to that. SB 1862 would prohibit local governments from hiring lobbyists to do their bidding in the Texas Legislature.

Texas State Senator, Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, a co-sponsor of the bill, said via Watch Dog that the measure would bring needed reform to intergovernmental lobbying.

“Interests local governments have in legislation should be communicated by and through their officials,” Burton said.

Power in Numbers

Local governments in New Mexico are taking a different approach to gain influence over the state legislature.

In September, Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry announced that he had established a mayoral caucus to communicate local needs to state lawmakers in a unified voice.

“Our voices together are more powerful than our voices alone,” Berry told the Albuquerque Journal.

The caucus is comprised of 105 mayors representing about half of the state’s municipalities. One of its first initiatives may be to advance a proposal that would allow retired police officers to return to work without placing their pensions on hold.

Mayor Berry has tried unsuccessfully to push the initiative through the New Mexico Legislature on his own over the years. The caucuses could also offer perspective on exactly how much power a unified voice can wield in statehouses.

Lessons of the Past

Terms like “earmarks,” “pet projects” and “pork barrel spending” are often hurled at candidates in state elections. Backing a bill that benefits a specific region or cause has become a political liability for state lawmakers — but that concept isn’t a new one.

A study published in the American Political Science Review looked at the success rate of “district bills,” those that benefit a specific region of a state, from 1880-2000. The study looked at legislation introduced in 13 states over that time period and found a “large, stable gap in passage rates between big-city bills and bills from smaller places.”

The study concluded that state legislation is generally more apt to succeed when there are fewer voices championing the cause in legislative chambers.

“As a general rule, as city delegations get bigger, it’s harder for them to work together and to get their bills through,” Gerald Gamm, an associate professor of political science and history at the University of Rochester and co-author of the study, told CQ Roll Call’s StateTracker blog. “When they can figure out how to speak with a single voice, they have a lot more success in getting their work done.”

 

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