WILSON’S LOCAL PRINT AND DIGITAL COMMUNITY INSTITUTION SINCE 1896

Our Opinion: Sunlight required when public boards pay private lobbies

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If your tax dollars are paying to lobby North Carolina lawmakers on its behalf, the Wilson County Board of Education wants to make sure you’re seeing a return on the investment.

In a special meeting last week, board members grappled with the prudence and the optics of contributing to the North Carolina School Boards Action Center, the N.C. School Boards Association’s lobbying and public policy arm.

Even though all its members — elected boards of education overseeing North Carolina’s 115 public school districts — are government agencies, the association is a private group. That means it’s not subject to the same transparency requirements as its member boards. The amount of taxpayer money it receives warrants careful scrutiny.

Wilson County’s school leaders weighed the merits and eventually settled on a compromise. The N.C. School Boards Action Center wanted $5,000. In a 4-2 vote, our board decided it would pitch in $2,500 in an effort to balance the benefits of having access to a professional lobbyist with the need to keep a tight grip on the public purse.

“Even though the formula says $5,000, I am sure they would be willing to take any contribution that we can give,” Chairwoman Christine Fitch said. “I hear the rationale that the others of you are giving, but I am of the belief that we do need to support this entity of our association.”

What seemed to seal the deal was the association’s reputation for effectiveness and the need to advocate for continued funding of North Carolina early college programs, which appear to be in danger of losing some state funding.

Wilson County chose wisely, and we commend the school board for its transparency. We can’t remember the last time a local governing body wrestled openly with spending public money on private lobbying. For that matter, it’s a rare discussion statewide. These annual dues are often buried in consent agendas and approved without comment.

School boards aren’t the only group of elected officials with a lobbyist walking the halls in Raleigh. Many of the 200 lobbyists registered with the N.C. Office of the Secretary of State represent governmental clients.

There’s the North Carolina League of Municipalities for cities and towns, the N.C. Association of County Commissioners, the N.C. Sheriffs’ Association, the N.C. Troopers Association, the N.C. Association of Registers of Deeds, and the list goes on.

Can’t mayors, school board members, county commissioners and sheriffs just speak for themselves? They can and do — most maintain good working relationships with their local legislators. But not all politics is local. Getting a bill heard on the House or Senate floor or tweaking a budget line item requires the ear of legislative leaders and key committee chairs, and that’s where familiarity and relationships matter. Paid professional lobbying is an unfortunate political necessity.

There’s also an arms-race mentality. If charter schools and traditional public schools are at loggerheads, school boards don’t want the charters’ lobbyist to be the only one with a seat at the table.

It’s unrealistic to suggest public agencies shouldn’t fund legislative lobbying. What’s entirely reasonable and fair, however, is to insist that local governments lobby in their constituents’ interest since those taxpayers are ultimately the ones picking up the tab.

If an association representing cities, counties, sheriffs or school boards takes a public stance that’s contrary to the will of stakeholders in Wilson County, we expect our city council, county commissioners, sheriff and Board of Education to advocate for us rather than toeing the trade group’s line.

Vocal members can often exert influence within their professional associations. Wilson City Councilman Michael Bell is a member of the N.C. League of Municipalities’ board of directors. On the county boards’ association, Edgecombe County Commissioner Viola Harris represents District 7, which includes Wilson and Nash counties.

Pragmatic taxpayers won’t begrudge their elected representatives the proportionally small amount of association dues that pay for lobbying, but they should ask for an accounting of that expense and an explanation of the benefits it bought.

The Wilson City Council and Wilson County Board of Commissioners ought to follow the school board’s lead and discuss contributions to government trade groups openly in public meetings. All three boards should make their respective associations’ legislative agendas available through the city, county and school system websites so you can determine whether the groups are advocating for your best interests.

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