Editor's note: This is the second part of an article on lobbying by state government agencies, particularly the University of North Carolina.
In the first part of this article, I discussed the way that taxpayers in North Carolina are forced to pay the salaries of lobbyists who push for higher spending, using the University of North Carolina system as an example. But perhaps even more galling than the influence of those taxpayer-funded hired guns is the way these same state agencies (especially UNC) can muster entire armies of connected “volunteers” to lobby without falling afoul of regulatory officials.
Certainly, the right of the people to contact their legislators is something that never should be tampered with. To this end, state law offers several exemptions from the need to register as lobbyists. These exemptions include individuals expressing their own opinions, people who provide information to members of the legislature at the request of legislators, media members seeking information, and a few other special cases.
Most of the exemptions are well and good, and benefit our participatory form of government. But one exemption, 120C-700(3), goes way too far; it permits government employees to lobby as much as they want to in matters pertaining to their work, without registering as lobbyists (although, according to one expert, they cannot do so while on the clock). Giving such carte blanche to public employees to pressure legislators is just asking for shenanigans to occur.
Another ethical dilemma is that there are no specific rules to govern the networks of volunteers who perform orchestrated lobbying at the service of state agencies. According to Jane Pinsky, the director of the North Carolina Coalition for Lobby Reform, a Raleigh-based, nonpartisan nonprofit organization, as long as people are neither paid to lobby nor salaried employees of a state agency, they are considered to be individuals pursuing their self-interest.
If Pinsky is correct, that is tantamount to saying “anything goes” to agencies organizing recipients of government subsidies to lobby for higher budgets.
The UNC system is particularly flush with such groups which actively seek to influence legislation: the Board of Governors, seventeen boards of trustees, an alumni network numbering in the hundreds of thousands, and student government groups.
Board members and alumni are strongly encouraged to put pressure on legislators. Both current system president Thomas Ross and his predecessor, Erskine Bowles, have publicly urged Board of Governors members to do so at meetings. Administrators take frequent trips to the capitol on Jones Street, and a Pope Center employee was taken aback at an alumni meeting by suggestions that she advocate against UNC budget cuts to legislators.
But the student governments’ lobbying activities are the most troubling—it is hard to see how they qualify as one of the exceptions listed in 120C-700. At least two student groups aggressively and openly lobbied for more money for the UNC system this year. One is the system-wide Associated Student Government (ASG), which has representatives from all 16 UNC college campuses. Another is UNC-Chapel Hill’s student government.
ASG members may be on the shakiest ground, for they receive pay directly from the system (through student fees) by virtue of their positions (up to $8,000 per year). Yet, according to Jane Pinsky, they are not considered employees for lobbying purposes under Internal Revenue Service guidelines, because the money is given as stipends and not salaries. They are instead considered self-interested individuals, with few limits on their lobbying activities.
But student government officials are hardly just self-interested individuals. In 2010, UNC-Chapel Hill student Marc Seelinger wrote an expose of ASG lobbying activities for a student publication, the Carolina Review. In it, he described how the ASG funded a lobbying excursion for its officers, including expenses such as hotel rooms. Seelinger quoted from the ASG’s charter to show that lobbying is one of the organization’s central activities:
The purposes of the Association shall be to: Act as a liaison between the students and the Governor of North Carolina, the North Carolina General Assembly, the Office of the President of the University of North Carolina, and other state and federal officials… [to] actively involve students in the area of government relations so as to promote the passage or defeat of legislation, which the Association deems relevant to the education of students, their institutions, and higher education in North Carolina” (Article I, Section II, Paragraphs D and G).
This year, according to a March 13th article in the Daily Tar Heel (the main student newspaper at UNC-Chapel Hill), the ASG was “organizing student lobbying days with legislators.” Later in the session, as the vote for the final budget neared, ASG president Atul Bhula, a Charlotte area resident who now attends graduate school in Boone, became a frequent figure at the legislative office building.
Additionally, the organization has come under frequent attack for not representing students’ interests, but, rather, those of the university system’s general administration.
The same March 13th Daily Tar Heel article also described how UNC-Chapel Hill’s student government president has been organizing students to “advocate for lower cuts to the UNC system” using university resources (the UNC-Chapel Hill student government website urged students to sign up for lobbying efforts).
While campus student government officers are not paid, it is naïve to assume that the administration has no influence with them. Not only do schools possess the ability to reward and punish—through scholarships, special favors, acceptance to graduate programs, and recommendations—but students naturally seek to please their mentors.
It is not just the university system where this is a problem—K-12 education, local governments, and other public sectors are equally out of control. All this pressure produces results—just like everybody else, legislators can be manipulated.
And too often the arguments are one-sided. Because of the principle of concentrated benefits and dispersed costs, the people paying the bills are too busy making the money to trawl the halls of the legislature.
Enforcement of lobbying rules—except for those governing registered lobbyists—are a bit of a mystery. A State Ethics Commission staff member who wished to remain anonymous said oversight primarily consists of responding to complaints—nobody is actually checking to see who is spending lots of time with legislators. Transparency is non-existent; the two agencies that govern lobbying regulations—the North Carolina Secretary of State’s office and the Ethics Commission—have never revealed information about how many complaints are received, the nature of those complaints, or their resolutions. (Due to a 2010 change, however, they will reveal the total number of complaints and only that number for the year for the first time at the end of 2011.)
The absence of regulation is so glaring that people familiar with North Carolina’s lobbying laws—including employees of the State Ethics Commission and Jane Pinsky—often use phrases such as “clear as mud,” “grey areas,” and “very murky” to describe the regulation of lobbying by employees and associates of state agencies.
Without clear regulation and enforcement, mischief occurs. The lack of controls on organizations connected to government agencies further tilts the scales in favor of those agencies. As a result, government spending spirals higher in good times, and drops less in good times.
There have been bills proposed over the years that tackle various aspects of lobbying—reporting of gifts and expenditures, and so on. But the ones that have passed essentially redefine existing regulations—such as those concerned with gift-giving—rather than trying to get a handle on the areas that are “gray,” “murky,” and “muddy.” Good, clear regulations that draw clear boundaries around lobbying activities by government agencies and organizations connected to them would go a long way to restoring balance to the budgetary process.