Guest columnists Matt Shea and Amber Gunn call for restrictions on government agencies using taxpayer money to lobby other government agencies.

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LOBBYING, whether by private individuals or corporations, is a constitutionally protected way for people to have a voice in government. But in Washington state, lobbying is also done by government to government — at taxpayer expense.

Agencies sometimes provide lawmakers with vital information, such as project updates, safety statistics, or ideas for streamlining processes to achieve better outcomes. However, last year, government agencies in Washington spent millions lobbying state government officials — meeting behind closed doors or testifying at public hearings.

Not only is this lobbying paid for by us taxpayers, the purpose is often to increase the size, scope and cost of these government agencies or to prevent budget cuts. That is an inherent conflict of interest.

Take the state Department of Printing: When lawmakers flirted with the idea of saving money by contracting out printing services, the department tried to hire a lobbyist for the 2011 legislative session. The agency offered to pay between $12,500 and $25,000 for the position — a small price to pay to save a $20 million dollar shop from the budgetary chopping block. In the wake of public outrage, the department withdrew its bid to hire a lobbyist.

According to the Public Disclosure Commission (PDC), lobbying expenditures by government agencies have more than doubled over the past decade. Examples compiled by Freedom Foundation researchers in 2009 included the Office of the Governor, at $107,141, and the biggest public lobbyer, the University of Washington, which spent $306,377.

Government agencies in Washington spend millions more lobbying the federal government. And what’s worse, various state agencies, local governments and municipalities have also failed to disclose millions spent on taxpayer-funded lobbying, even though it is required by law.

Forms filed with the PDC by lobbyists reveal at least $4.6 million in lobbying expenditures not disclosed by their government agency clients, even though it is required by law.

Sound Transit failed to file lobbying reports for seven years, hiding more than $800,000 in lobbying. The delinquent reports were filed last July, after the Freedom Foundation asked agency officials to explain the missing reports. The foundation also discovered 67 other government agencies that failed to disclose or underreported their lobbying expenditures.

Government agencies can be penalized for failing to properly file lobbying reports on time, but to little effect. The penalty is minimal and fines are paid out of an agency’s budget. This means taxpayers not only pay for the lobbying but the penalties as well.

In fact, of the 67 agencies that underreported their lobbying expenses, fines were issued only to five agencies. The fines amounted to less than $500 each, except for Sound Transit, whose chronic violations brought down the wrath of the PDC with an unusual $15,000 fine.

Washington needs restrictions on taxpayer-funded lobbying. House Bill 2112 would start by holding public servants accountable for their lobbying activities by requiring stiffer, personal penalties for failure to report lobbying expenditures. In Florida, public servants who misuse public funds for lobbying have those funds deducted from their paychecks.

Next, the bill would restrict lobbying activities to agency directors or deputy directors. This approach would curtail lobbying by state agencies, while ensuring lawmakers still hear from them when necessary.

Several positive effects would result. First, while deficit woes won’t be solved by eliminating taxpayer-funded lobbying, it would save millions of dollars. Second, it would eliminate the insulting practice of forcing citizens to fund the same lobbyists they may have to compete with in Olympia. Third, we may actually see a lower rate of government spending growth overall.

At a time when families are struggling to make ends meet, we need to demand that our governments cut wasteful and nonessential spending in order to maintain core government services without raising taxes. We should start by firing taxpayer-funded lobbyists.

Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley, left, represents the 4th Legislative District. Amber Gunn is economic policy director for the Olympia-based Freedom Foundation.