Tax Analysts Blog

Stealth Lobbying

Posted on Feb 26, 2013

The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) is a bipartisan organization that “serves the legislators and staffs of the nation’s 50 states” by providing “research, technical assistance and opportunities for policy makers to exchange ideas on the most pressing state issues.” In addition to committees and task forces, which are composed of legislators and legislative staff, the NCSL also has a staff of its own. That staff lobbies Congress, the White House, and federal agencies for the benefit of state legislatures in accordance with the policies recommended by the NCSL standing committees. The NCSL acknowledges itself as a “formidable lobbying force in state-federal relations.”

The NCSL task forces are used to deal with specific issues that cut across the jurisdiction of the standing committees. Task forces are typically staffed by 20 to 30 legislators and legislative staff. There is a task force on state and local taxation, which, among other things, took part in the creation of the streamlined sales tax agreement.

The work of the task force is funded by the NCSL, state legislatures, and some in the private sector. Given the economic difficulties from the Great Recession, the task force has seen its institutional support dry up. In order to continue affecting state and local tax policy, the task force determined it needed additional financial support. To obtain that support, the task force established a system of sponsorship where the benefits to the sponsor vary depending on the sponsor’s level of funding. A letter went out on February 18 detailing the plan.

There are three levels of potential sponsorship: Silver, Gold, and Platinum. Silver level sponsorship requires a contribution of $5000 and entitles the sponsor to complimentary attendance at task force meetings for one person and an invitation for one person at all task force dinners. Gold level sponsorship requires a contribution of $10,000 and entitles the sponsor to the Silver level benefits plus participation in a quarterly task force advisory call. Finally, Platinum level sponsorship requires a contribution of $20,000 and entitles the sponsor to the Gold level benefits plus a seat at the task force table during all meetings (which is otherwise restricted to legislators/legislative staff).

There are a host of concerns with such a plan. First, offering a “seat at the table” only to those sponsors that contribute $20,000 or even tying participation in the task force's quarterly advisory call just feels wrong. The idea that a corporate sponsor can pay for exclusive access to legislators is enough to raise more than an eyebrow. Second, the money raised would not only be used for research and lobbying efforts by the task force, it would also be used to reimburse the travel expenses of task force members. Remember, task force members include state legislators. So now we have private sector companies paying for legislators to jet around the country. Again, it just feels wrong.

By accepting corporate sponsors, the NCSL is transforming itself from a nonprofit group that was intended to educate legislators and lobby for the benefit of state legislatures into a group that lobbies on behalf of corporate sponsors to convince the government to make a decision beneficial to them. The NCSL’s purpose of educating legislators could easily change into stealth lobbying. It bears watching closely.

Read Comments (1)

Nat CFeb 26, 2013

Conflict of Interest is defined differently by the states, but it must be that
this NCSL org is perceived to be exempt. State AGs should be aware of the
issue and speak up.

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