State agencies, local government entities, and school districts spent at least $1.3 million in taxpayer money lobbying for more of your money in 2019 — and that may just be the tip of the proverbial iceberg. That’s one of the findings of an audit released yesterday by the Kansas Legislative Division of Post Audit.
The audit also found more than $11 million was spent in fiscal 2019 on fees and dues for “association memberships,” roughly $5 million of which went to professional associations which lobby at the state or federal level.
State law defines a lobbyist as anyone who: “is employed in considerable degree for lobbying; is appointed as the primary representative of an organization or person to lobby on state-owned or leased property; spends $1,000 or more in any calendar year for lobbying; or is hired as an independent contractor and compensated by an executive agency for the purpose of evaluation, management, consulting or acting as a liaison for the executive agency and who engages in lobbying.
Some lobbying isn’t reported
Anyone who meets the definition of lobbyist in the statute is required to register with the Kansas Secretary of State each year who maintains a directory of all lobbyists in the state and their clients. In 2019 there were about 550 lobbyists registered in Kansas representing about 750 different clients.
However, according to the report, state law exempts state employees, judicial employees, and advisory council members who lobby as part of their job from registering as a lobbyist.”
For example,” the report states, “an accountant from a state agency advocating for their agency’s budget at a legislative hearing is lobbying but does not need to register. However, if the state agency hired an outside contractor to lobby for the agency budget at a legislative hearing, that person would need to register.”
The exemption does not, however, include local government employees, such as a school district employee lobbying for their district.
“This exemption is important because it means no one has a full picture of lobbying in the state,” the report reads. “We do not know how many state employees or other exempted individuals might be lobbying but are exempted from registering with the Secretary of State.”
Since only registered lobbyists are required by law to report receipt of public funds, state employees, therefore, do not report. Moreover, according to the report, while the self-reporting forms are reviewed by the ethics committee, not all registered lobbyists filed the 2019 report and there is no penalty in statute for failing to file the report, making the law nearly impossible to enforce.
Ethics Staff told LPA they do contact lobbyists who did not file their reports or filed them incorrectly.
The lack of an enforcement mechanism and the exceptions to the statute make it nearly impossible to determine the real numbers of both dollars spent and the actual number of lobbyists operating in the capital.
Most government units failed to respond
The $11 million figure in dues and fees to “professional associations” is likely understated as well, as only about 25% of the state and local governments who were surveyed responded to LPA’s requests, and there is no centralized database of what associations the various entities surveyed belong to.
According to the report, “76 out of 97 state agencies responded (78%), 148 out of 286 school districts responded (52%), 37 out of 105 counties responded (35%), 160 out of 623 cities responded (26%), and 515 out of 2,673 special districts and townships responded (19%).”
However, contact information could not be found for 450 special districts and townships (which include rural areas of the state and volunteer fire departments, which in many cases may have no one to respond, and most who did respond — 479 of 515 respondents — reported no spending on membership fees and dues at all, the report said.
So using only the 1,111 state and local entities which are likely to belong to associations, only roughly 38 percent even responded to the requests, meaning the real spending of public funds on association memberships is likely much higher.
Why 23 state agencies failed to respond to a request from LPA is unclear.
Because of the unreliable figures, errors are not only likely but almost inevitable, which the report acknowledges:
“We found a potential issue with how much the Kansas Hospital Association pays for lobbying,” it said. “The lobbyists on staff at the Kansas Hospital Association (KHA) reported receiving the highest amount, about $240,000. They told us this amount is significantly overstated. They said they reported all funds received from their public community hospital members for lobbying as public funds. However, they said public community hospitals have many funding sources and include funds they consider to be non-public funds like commercial insurance payments for services.”
In a letter to the Legislative Post Audit Committee, KHA stated: “When KHG went back to the data to determine how much of the funding from hospitals meets the public funds definition, less than 2 percent of the total qualified as public funds. Based on this information, the actual public funds expenditures for lobbying through dues paid to KHA is approximately $4,800.”
The confusion over what constitutes “public funds” even by those organizations who are paid by public agencies simply underscores the conclusions of LPA’s report.
“It’s currently not possible to know the full amount of public funds spent on lobbying. State law requires registered lobbyists to report how much they received in public funds to the Secretary of State. However, those amounts don’t include public funds paid to federal lobbyists or state employees who lobby as part of their job duties. The amounts also don’t include payments that state and local governments make to lobbyists from private funds or donations. As a result, the available information is incomplete.
“Further, determining how much public funding is spent on association fees and dues (and which of those associations might engage in lobbying activities) is extremely difficult. That’s because Kansas has almost 3,800 state and local government entities that could be making these payments. Moreover, state law doesn’t require government entities to report specifically on which associations they pay, and it’s not often feasible to identify which associations might engage in lobbying activities. Even though the information we provide in this report is the best available, it is clearly not complete.”