Taxpayer-funded lobbying associations

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Taxpayer-funded lobbying is when public entities, including counties, cities, state schools, and public facilities, lobby with money received from taxes. This lobbying can be explicit, such as membership in government sector lobbying associations or advocacy before a legislative body. The practice can be more subtle, such as school districts hosting legislators for a breakfast to create favorable relationships with legislators.[1]

Taxpayer-funded lobbying associations (TFLAs) are groups that use funds that come directly or indirectly from taxpayers for political lobbying purposes. Local entities—cities, counties, school district—use taxpayer funds to pay membership dues to a group such as the New Jersey State League of Municipalities. That association then lobbies or pays money directly to lobbyists to promote or oppose legislation. These associations tend to be 501(c) organizations.


Taxpayer-funded lobbying associations help governments in more than just attaining federal and state money. Generally speaking, government sector lobbying associations will help governments work to solve similar issues, the keep members informed on legislative happenings, and let legislators know where governments stand on legislation.

The organizations help in facilitating communications between local governments so that officials can learn from the experience of others who have been in similar situations. They also provide legislative updates in the form of communication, usually through e-mail, summarizing the status and content of bills. This way, local governments are kept abreast of relevant state and federal issues. Associations also present a unified stance of governments on certain bills, giving legislators a generalized picture of how local governments feel on particular issues.

For example, the National Association of Counties "assists counties in finding and sharing innovative solutions" as part of facilitating communication between governments.[2] It does this "through education and research," which includes communication with the member counties, conferences, and help with understanding how to apply policies.[2] NACo also advances issues with a unified voice before the federal government.

The National Conference of Democratic Mayors aims to work "as the structure through which mayors who subscribe to the principles of the Democratic Party can communicate"[3] and the U.S. Conference of Mayors "create[s] a forum in which mayors can share ideas and information."[4]


Membership dues and lobbying

The amount that government sector lobbying associations receive from governments is much more than is actually used on lobbying. For example, in Minnesota for 2009, government sector lobbying associations received $10,205,657 from local governments.[5] $4,450,396 of this was actually spent lobbying.


The Alaskan legislature considered the Alaska Anti-Corruption Act that would eliminate government sector lobbying donations to election campaigns, but it failed in 2008. As of July 31, 2009, supporters of the bill have resurrected it and are trying to have it passed so it applies to the 2010 ballot.

Others question the constitutionality of government sector lobbying. In Texas, taxpayers filed a lawsuit against the Texas Association of Counties, a government sector lobbying association. In this case, the judge decided the Texas Association of Counties has been in violation of the law by using association dues paid by Texas counties in their advocacy and lobby work.

Tax status and lobbying

Many lobbying organizations are 501(c) organizations, primarily 501(c)(3) and 501(c)(4). 501(c)(4) organizations are allowed to lobby by law. 501(c)(3) organizations, however, are typically considered non-political and non-lobbying because of the strict ban on political campaigning. They can still lobby, however, as long as they follow strict guidelines.

Lobbying is any attempt to influence lawmakers. Under different laws, however, the definition is more narrow. There are several ways government sector lobbying associations can lobby, including 501(c)(3) organizations. According to the law, lobbying occurs only when money is exchanged. If attempts to influence the legislature are done by members of the organization or volunteers, this does not count as lobbying under the law.[6]

501(c)(3) organizations can lobby at all levels of government. The 1976 Lobby Law makes it clear that 501(c)(3)s can lobby within certain limits.[6] If 501(c)(3)s select the 501(h) option, they can lobby up to $1 million depending on the size of the organization: the 501(h) selection allows the organization to spend 20% of the first $500,000 of its annual expenditures on lobbying, and 15% of the next $500,000, until this reaches $1 million.[6]

Lobbying under the 1976 law allows for direct lobbying and grassroots lobbying.[6]

  • Direct lobbying involves the stating a position on specific legislation to government employees who are involved in the formulation of legislation, or urging organization members to do so.
  • Grassroots lobbying is when an organization states its position on legislation and urges the public to contact legislators. This is not to be confused with trying to get the members of the 501(c)(3) organization mobilized to contacting their elected officials, since a 501(c)(3) organization is only considered to be lobbying once tries to reach beyond its membership.

A 501(c)(3) organization may inform political actors of its stances on particular issues and urge them to pledge their support.[6] 501(c)(3) organizations may not publish or distribute statements by candidates, however, except as nonpartisan questionnaires or as part of news reports. The questions must be broad and unbiased, and be given to all candidates for office.[6]

501(c)(3)s can also set up affiliated organizations for use in engaging in unlimited lobbying (and certain political) activities. The U.S. Supreme Court has said[7][6] that 501(c)(3)s can establish affiliated 501(c)(4)s, 501(c)(6)s or other tax exempt affiliates (except Section 527 organizations, which include PACs) to carry on unlimited lobbying activities and otherwise permitted political activities as long as all funding comes from independent sources (for which no charitable tax deduction will be available). If the 501(c)(3) and its lobbying affiliate share office space, services, or staff, the affiliate must reimburse the 501(c)(3).[6]

Transparency and disclosure

See also: Taxpayer-funded lobbying disclosure

Many governments do not consider their membership in government sector lobbying associations as lobbying. Because these groups usually serve other functions, as mentioned in the Purpose section, this is natural. For example, Rock Island County in Illinois stated it does not lobby, but has membership in lobbying organizations.[8] Membership to these organizations is paid for by governments, and these funds go at least in part towards funding lobbying activities.

Reporting lobbying activities

Under the federal Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, a 501(c)(3) organization is required to register and file semiannual reports concerning its lobbying activities if:[6] (1) the organization has at least one employee who is a lobbyist" (makes at least one "lobbying contact" and devotes at least 20 percent of his or her time to "lobbying activities") (2) the organization expects to incur expenditures on lobbying activities of $20,500 or more in a six-month period (January-June, July-December).

Outside lobbyists hired to lobby on behalf of a 501(c)(3) or other organization have a semiannual expenditure threshold is $5,000 rather than $20,500.

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