Limited Taxation
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Barbara's Column
May 19, 1999

You have a Prayer of Playing ... if you Pay

I wanted to be a nun when I grew up, but when I realized I didn't have a vocation, I became a lobbyist.

Well, actually, I gave up the nun thing when I found out about the vow of obedience in third grade, a few years before the vow of chastity would have changed my mind anyhow. Then thirty years later, when Proposition 2 was passed by the voters, I accidentally became a lobbyist.

It seems that if a political activist becomes executive director of a taxpayer group which wins a state ballot campaign, she can work to defend that new law only if she registers as a legislative agent.

Legislative agent is a euphemism for lobbyist, like sanitary engineer is a euphemism for trash collector. This may be an unfair analogy, since there are few occupations more essential to civilization than trash collector, and few less essential than lobbyist, or for that matter politician.

Legislators usually do what they darn well please, which is usually whatever pleases the legislative leaders, so only occasionally can a lobbyist advance the general good.

There are two basic kinds of lobbyists. My kind runs organizations that fight for or against certain laws, and part of our job is to communicate with legislators so that our members have a voice. The other kind is hired, often by a variety of special interest groups, to look out for those groups' legislative interests full-time.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with any of us. As long as there are politicians determined to keep themselves busy annoying the rest of the population, someone should attempt to reason with them and keep them from doing irreversible damage.

I've heard that there are professional lobbyists who justify their substantial salaries or retainers by actually encouraging legislators to do busywork. A large business group might take turns with labor unions to file a threatening bill, so they can take turns raising money to fight the threat.

And we've all read about lobbyists who spend big money to influence legislation that will benefit their clients at the expense of everyone else; the news story is sometimes followed by indictments and prison terms, or by convention center, sports arena and other assorted "infrastructure."

But more commonly, modest amounts of money are given to the same legislator by both sides, canceling out the influence. This is what usually happens at political "times," the fundraising events that are held by politicians' re-election campaigns.

Most are just courtesy parties: the legislator being honored has no influence but he votes with you. Sending a contribution is legitimate because you really do want your allies to get re-elected.

More important are "times" that are held for the Chairman of the Committee that is in charge of the bill you are proposing or fighting. Most professional lobbyists consider this "time" a "behooves," as in "it behooves you to be seen there," even if in fact the Chairman does only what his boss, the Senate President or the Speaker of the House, allows him to do.

Needless to say, if you're serious about getting something passed or killed, the times held by these two leaders and their Ways and Means Committee Chairmen just before the budget debate are "big behooves." Being at their "time" won't win your issue, but not being at their "time" will be duly noted.

Usually, though, politicians laugh at these party-goers all the way to the bank. Rep. Angelo Scaccia (D-Readville) accepted favors from Boston business lobbyists even though as an anti-business liberal he wouldn't vote with them if they bought him Connecticut; in my opinion he should not have been indicted. Common Cause is upset that Speaker Tom Finneran raised big money from the banks who don't want ATM charges; if fact, he wouldn't be likely to support ATM charges anyhow.

I sometimes go to events for pro-taxpayer legislators, none of whom are presently in power, but I never attend the others: this is why I am a registered lobbyist in form only, and an outsider by trade. If pro-taxpayer bills pass or fail, it is only because the average citizen decides to become an unpaid lobbyist himself, and works to influence his legislators with a phone call, letter, or vote on election day. No amount of professional lobbying or campaign finance reform will ever take the place of that.

Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation.  Her syndicated columns appear in the Salem Evening News, the Lowell Sun, the Tinytown Gazette and other publications around the state.

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