Do government agencies need lobbyists?
Most folks would say no, and sneer when giving their answer.
But their response might be different if the question were worded more artfully - Do government agencies need legislative liaisons to protect the interests of citizens?
Lobbyists, perhaps unfairly, have been vilified as insiders who work backroom deals to gain influence - and more - for their clients.
But that's not what most lobbyists do on a regular basis. Most lobbyists - or legislative liaisons - monitor what's going on in the state capital and update their clients (usually a particular industry such as home builders, grocery stores and even newspapers) about what legislation is being discussed that will impact these industries or businesses. They also serve the important function of trying to educate legislators on the impact legislative proposals will have on their clients.
Many state agencies either contract or have on staff legislative liaisons who serve the same function. They ensure these state agencies are not flying blind in their dealings with the Legislature and the governor.
We believe government agencies need legislative liaisons. They are important to ensuring the legislative system works well to serve the best interests of the people.
Yet, the current budget crisis in Washington state has all state legislative liaisons in, as Northwest Public Radio reported last week, "Republican crosshairs."
NPR's Olympia correspondent, Austin Jenkins, reported Sen. Joe Zarelli, the ranking Republican on the Senate budget committee, wants to eliminate all legislative liaisons in state government citing budget concerns.
The savings, in relation to the $30-billion-plus budget, would be insignificant while the damage done could be costly. State agencies would have little idea what lawmakers are considering. Lawmakers, through their staffs, would have a vague idea what the various agencies are doing but would not be able to get the inside perspective liaisons provide.
The legislative system would become even less efficient and responsive.
And if the private sector continues to have legislative liaisons or lobbyists, it puts government - the people - at a disadvantage in the legislative arena.
NPR's Jenkins talked to Mark Funk, a longtime Olympia-watcher and public affairs consultant with clients on both sides of the political aisle (and a U-B reporter in the late 1970s). Funk told Jenkins a flat-out ban on legislative liaisons could lead to legislative mistakes.
Funk says this debate reminds him of the ending scene in the movie "Unforgiven" when Clint Eastwood's character, Bill Munny, walks into a saloon and shoots the unarmed bartender. The local sheriff says, "You just shot an unarmed man." Munny responds, "He should have armed himself."
"If you go to Olympia you should be armed," Funk said.
State agencies should be able to defend themselves - and the work they do for the people - in dealing with the Legislature.