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Arizona Republicans look to curb lobbying activities by cities, counties, school districts

Because cities and counties often oppose legislation they propose, Republican lawmakers are looking to ban them from hiring the contract lobbyists who fight those bills at the Capitol. 

On a party-line 4-3 vote, with all three Democratic members opposing the proposal, the Senate Government Committee approved Senate Bill 1198, which prohibits cities, towns, counties, school districts and other political subdivisions of the state from hiring outside lobbyists. 

Any organization whose membership is primarily composed of public bodies would be barred from using any of the money they get from membership dues for lobbying. That would limit the lobbying activities of organizations like the League of Arizona Cities and Towns that frequently oppose legislation favored by the Republican majority at the legislature. 

And the Arizona Association of Counties, which has prominently represented the interests of county elections officials this year, would not be allowed to tell lawmakers how proposals would affect election operations.

The committee approved an amendment that would exempt small cities with fewer than 75,000 people and counties with populations under a quarter million. Only Maricopa, Pima and Pinal counties have populations of more than 250,000. 

Sen. Warren Petersen, the bill’s sponsor and a member of the Senate Government Committee, said it was shocking to him when he first got the state Capitol that he’d speak to lobbyists from cities and counties about legislation, only to learn when he later spoke with the elected officials from those entities that they hadn’t taken a position at all. Oftentimes, they’d be unaware that their lobbyists were even taking positions on various bills. 

Petersen, a Gilbert Republican who previously served on the Gilbert Town Council, said it’s the unelected administrators like city managers who dictate their lobbyists’ activities, not the elected officials. 

Public bodies would still be able to have their own employees lobby at the Capitol. But SB1198 would just ratchet down their “tremendous power and influence” by a couple notches, he said. 

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“It is absolutely disturbing to see the amount of taxpayer funds that is spent against the taxpayer. It’s nauseating, actually. The reality is, this doesn’t get rid of so much of their power and influence. It literally just edges it back a little,” Petersen said. 

Representatives of the public bodies that would see their lobbying abilities curtailed, some of whom were already at the committee to testify against numerous other bills, voiced their concern. 

Longtime Capitol lobbyist Barry Aarons, who represents Apache and Greenlee counties and the cities of Prescott and Scottsdale, said Petersen’s bill would actually result in local governments spending more on lobbying. Three of those four clients would still be permitted to hire him under the amendment the committee passed, leaving only Scottsdale without his services. Aarons explained how Scottsdale came to hire him about 12 years ago to illustrate his point. 

Scottsdale had two full-time employees dedicated to intergovernmental relations. When one left, the city decided to hire Aarons instead of filling the position, which he said would have cost twice as much, not counting health care and other employee-related expenses. City officials remember that every year when they vote to continue his contract, Aarons said.

“I would suggest that what we’re doing here might be philosophically something that sounds like a reasonable idea,” Aarons said. “But on the other hand, you might actually be creating a higher cost to the political subdivisions that are involved.”

Jennifer Marson, executive director of the Arizona Association of Counties, echoed that sentiment. Marson has been such a regular presence and reliable opponent of the Republican lawmakers’ election bills this year that one committee member, Sen. Sonny Borrelli, R-Lake Havasu City, nicknamed her Negative Nellie. Marson suggested a better nickname might be Just Doing My Job Jen.

While her presence is felt most regarding the election bills the committee has heard this session, Marson reminded lawmakers that her association lobbies on a lot of other issues that affect counties, like property assessment and taxation, law enforcement and criminal justice, courts, document recordings and education issues. Arizona has 15 counties, 12 of which were represented by the seven committee members, Marson noted, and not one of them could hire someone to handle all of those subjects for the same price as the association. 

“We’re covering a lot of ground. And we think we are a bargain at twice the price, quite frankly. And I think we do a good job advocating for our members and being good stewards of information to the legislature, even when we disagree,” Marson said. 

Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale, said he would hate to take away local governments’ voices by barring them from hiring outside lobbyists. Governance is complex, he said, and sometimes lawmakers need input, both good and bad, from local governments. And those local governments often hire lobbyists because they don’t feel like their voices are being heard at the Capitol. He said the Pendergast Elementary School District, whose governing board he serves on, is in the process of hiring a lobbyist for that reason. 

“This is one of the bills where we completely miss the point of the purpose of the lobbyists who are coming to speak with us,” Quezada said. 

Other speakers shared Petersen’s view. Jon Riches of the conservative Goldwater Institute likened SB1198 to an executive order Gov. Doug Ducey signed in 2016, and legislation that lawmakers passed the following year, prohibiting  agencies, boards, commissions and other state government entities from hiring contract lobbyists. 

“The legislature and Governor Ducey at the time recognized something that’s fundamental in our republic – tax dollars should not go to support status quo special interests at the expense of taxpayers, small businesses and citizens who might not be able to afford a team of well-funded lobbyists, including lobbyists who often advocate against those taxpayers’ interests,” Riches said. “That problem is acute at all levels of government, not just the state level of government.”

Amy Yentes, vice president of the conservative Arizona Free Enterprise Club and a member of the Gilbert Town Council, said it’s properly the role of elected officials, not contract lobbyists, to lobby lawmakers on bills.

“They should be the ones who are representing their taxpayers’ interests,” she said. 

The bill now moves to the full Senate.

This report was first published by the Arizona Mirror.

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“This is one of the bills where we completely miss the point of the purpose of the lobbyists who are coming to speak with us.”

— – Sen. Martin Quezada, D-Glendale


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