Hard-hit cities, states hire near-record lobbyists

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Cities and states are spending near-record amounts to retain their expensive cadres of Washington lobbyists, even as the worst economic recession in a generation prompts layoffs, mounting deficits and falling property-tax revenues.

States and localities are on track to spend a combined $83.1 million in taxpayer money this year on Washington lobbyists, the second straight recession year to top the previously unbroached $80 million barrier, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. By comparison, officials spent less than half that much - $38.5 million - lobbying Washington in 2001.

Lobbying expenditures by states and localities rose by 118 percent from 2001 to 2008, compared with a 101 percent increase among all sectors of the economy that lobbied Washington over the same period, according to the data. For the first six months of 2009, the center reports, local governments spent almost $41.6 million on such lobbying.

During the first half of 2009, Miami-Dade County spent $410,000 on Washington lobbyists at the same time it confronted a reported $444 million deficit. The Florida county is just one of 73 localities, states or territories to spend $100,000 or more on lobbyists so far this year to push their agendas in Washington, according to data from the watchdog group.

“Even though the economy has been as rotten as it has, the municipal, county, state and territorial governments of the country are just about on pace to equal the lobbying expenditures that they put forth last year,” said Dave Levinthal, a spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics.

It’s unclear whether governors, county executives, mayors and other public officials continue paying lobbyists in spite of or because of the recession, Mr. Levinthal said.

Critics decry the use of scarce tax dollars on lobbyists, arguing that the funds could be used to reduce taxes or improve public safety and social services. Supporters say the recession makes lobbying even more important, with local jurisdictions facing tough competition for federal aid.

“When state and local lobbyists chase federal dollars, taxpayers are always the ones who get trapped in the cycle,” said Pete Sepp, vice president of policy for the National Taxpayers Union.

“The lower-level governments say they’re only fighting for their fair share of a pot of money, but when that pot of money gets emptied, Washington makes the pot bigger the next time around because of the demand, which in turn only encourages states and localities to hire more lobbyists,” Mr. Sepp said.

“In essence,” he added, “states, counties and cities are simply kicking fiscal problems brought on by their own overspending upstairs to Washington, D.C., which is itself overspending to bail out other public and private entities.”

Officials in Miami-Dade see things differently, saying they have received tens of millions of dollars in federal funding for much-needed river dredging, explosive-detection devices and “neighborhood stabilization.” Miami-Dade officials credit lobbyists with helping them secure federal funding of more than $130 million for three projects in the past several years.

“We’ve obviously gotten a lot of bang for the buck,” said Joe Rasco, director of intergovernmental affairs for the county.

Without lobbyists, he said, the county would have a tougher time securing money from Washington, though he said work by the county’s congressional delegation is important as well.

Miami-Dade ranks behind only Pennsylvania and Puerto Rico in Washington lobbying expenditures so far this year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which analyzed governmental and quasi-governmental lobbying expenditures to come up with the rankings.

Miami-Dade retained several lobbying firms this year, paying the firms from $30,000 to $180,000 each, according to public records. Senate filings show that the county has lobbied for dozens of issues including veterans-service funding, a dredging project in Miami Harbor and Medicaid legislation. The county spent $890,000 last year compared with $1.3 million in 2004, records show.

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