The latest lobbying reports are out in Sacramento, showing how much special interests are spending to influence lawmakers. After reading the reports, you can’t blame taxpayers for feeling like the man who has been unjustly condemned to the gallows and is compelled to pay for the rope that will hang him.
When asked who spends the most currying favor with members of the Legislature, many folks will say “Big Oil” or maybe drug or insurance companies. Not even close. Those who name government employee unions as the big spenders would be wrong, too, but at least they would be getting warmer. (Unions, which thrive on involuntary “contributions,” have a huge influence on the activities of the biggest spender of all).
Far and away, the lobbying champs are California’s myriad of local governments. Through the first six months of this year, cities, counties, schools and other special districts have spent $24.3 million on influencing Sacramento lawmakers. And it is a safe bet that these governments are not spending this taxpayer money to promote tax cuts for average citizens. In fact, in many cases, they are spending tax dollars to advance their objective of wringing even more out of already beleaguered taxpayers.
Local government officials use high-sounding rhetoric to justify not spending these millions of dollars on fixing potholes, hiring first responders or addressing other pressing needs of the local community. To best serve their constituents, they will argue, it is important that they have a voice in lawmaking that may impact local jurisdictions.
Closer to the truth would be that local governments want to make sure they get a share of the “spoils” in our very high-tax state. And sometimes they seek more than a share of state revenue, they want special exemptions to allow them to increase local taxes beyond what state law allows.
A number of jurisdictions have sought and received exemptions from laws limiting the local sales tax, and in one case, nine Bay Area counties asked for, and received, an OK to create a huge taxing district to impose a parcel property tax on all residents, even though some lived many miles from the improvements for which they are being charged.
However, one of the motivators that keeps local government officials constantly scrounging for more revenue is, just like their brethren in Sacramento, so many are beholden to the most powerful political force in California, the government employee unions. Just like many state legislators, they owe their election to union support. These unions provide campaign cash and boots on the ground in election season. So, when it is time to sit down and discuss pay, the unions are represented on both sides of the table and taxpayers, if they are considered at all, are an afterthought.
With this constant pressure to raise funds for pay, benefits and pensions for local government workers, it should come as no surprise that local officials are willing to spend millions in the hope that state government will funnel more money back into local coffers and smooth the way for increasing the already exorbitant taxes locals are paying. Of course, savvy taxpayers understand that debates about where tax money comes from — be it state, local or even federal dollars — are a ruse. Every penny comes from the same location, our pockets.
The question local taxpayers must decide is whether or not money that could be used to solve local problems should continue to be spent “wining and dining” the Sacramento politicians. Certainly, the government employee unions think that this investment in Sacramento by local officials is a good deal for them.