Vermont Senate May Probe Publicly Funded Lobbying Organizations

Montpelier — A little noticed, six-paragraph provision that passed in the Senate just five hours before adjournment last week could lay the groundwork for significant changes in the way business is conducted at the Statehouse.

The resolution, S.R. 7, allows the Senate to form a special committee to examine the lobbying activities of publicly funded organizations. The purpose of the committee is to study the extent to which entities that receive taxpayer dollars use that money to influence the Legislature and the executive branch.

The Senate gave the seven-member committee the authority to use subpoena power to compel witnesses to testify and to gain access to financial records and other documents. The committee will begin meeting this summer.

Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington, sponsored the resolution with Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Quechee. Twenty-two members of the Senate endorsed the proposal.

Sears says he is tired of hitting the “brick wall” he says is put up by Vermont School Boards Association, Vermont Principals Association and Vermont Superintendents Association when the Legislature tries to change education policy.

“Taxpayers are not represented in these groups, and yet it is state tax dollars that are being spent,” Sears said.

Property tax reform likely will be a major topic of legislative discussion next year, he said, and he describes the VSBA, the VPA and VSA as the most powerful lobbying groups in the Statehouse.

“It seems as though trying to make changes in (education) policy is like pulling teeth,” Sears said. “My experience has been that even to the point of having the commissioner appointed by the governor was a huge battle.”

Sears said the resolution doesn’t target education associations, and it could just as easily apply to hospitals, municipalities and designated agencies, which provide services to state residents with developmental disabilities. It would not, however, include public unions that are supported by dues-paying members.

“I’m hoping to find out more and address the situation,” Sears said. “I don’t have any preconceived notions that anybody is doing something wrong, that’s not my goal here. It’s just looking at this whole issue.”

The language in the resolution is broad — any organization that receives state funding could come under scrutiny when the committee begins meeting this summer. Sears said hospitals, designated agencies, municipalities and other groups could all be subject to the rarely invoked subpoena requirement, though he doesn’t anticipate that compelling witnesses to attend hearings and provide documents would be necessary.

Still, he thought it was important for the full Senate to approve his request just in case. The Senate Judiciary Committee, of which Sears is chairman, has used subpoena power twice — once to investigate the death of an inmate in state prison and in another probe in the 2003 that determined how much private fundraising companies keep when they solicit money for charities.

Four states have restrictions on lobbying activities by publicly funded entities, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Ten prohibit state agencies from using public funds to retain lobbyists.

Peggy Kerns, director of the Center for Ethics in Government for NCSL, says such restrictions are usually prompted by a reaction to a lobbying effort.

Education lobby groups fought hard against a late-session property tax reform proposal from three members of the Senate Finance Committee that would have shifted $60 million in income tax money to the Education Fund in order to buy down the property tax rate by 6 cents in towns that keep spending levels below 3.5 percent. The proposal, which was not voted out of committee last week, would require municipalities to obtain support from a supermajority of voters to pass school budgets that exceed the rate of inflation by more than 1 percent. In addition, it would have required a minimum of 25 percent of all registered voters to pass budgets.

Dozens of school board members and state residents called and emailed senators shortly after the Senate proposal came to light, just three days before the originally scheduled adjournment last Saturday. In testimony before Senate Finance, Jeffrey Francis, director of the superintendents’ association, told senators that school officials were very nervous about the proposed changes because they were burned five years ago when the Senate passed the two-vote budget requirement for schools that exceed spending levels 1 percent above inflation.

Several senators, including Sears, complained about the barrage of emails