Your tax dollars in lobbyists' hands

The idea of publicly funded agencies spending tax dollars to hire lobbyists to try to get more tax dollars is a circular way of doing government business that seems designed to exasperate and confuse taxpayers.

That's how the RTA and its flock of transit agencies operate, paying $12.8 million to lobbyists over the past six years. Sometimes, different agencies under the RTA umbrella Metra, Pace and the CTA pay the same lobbyist to push agendas that may be at odds, as Daily Herald staff writer Marni Pyke pointed out in a recent series. Other government agencies do the same.

The practice brings plenty of questions to mind, especially when the lobbyists paid by the transit agencies turned around and spent $1.8 million to help fund Illinois political campaigns.

But the big problem comes when neither the lobbyists nor the public agencies that hire them will disclose what, exactly, they do to justify their taxpayer-funded million-dollar fees.

Neither Metra (which spent $5.4 million on lobbying since 2004) nor the CTA ($4.3 million) will give the public access to progress reports they've received from their lobbyists, saying the reports fall under the heading of attorney-client privilege and don't have to be disclosed. Never mind that the taxpayers are the real clients.

Pace ($855,816) says it does not have any progress reports, and the RTA ($2.3 million) says it only gets verbal reports claims that are either disingenuous or reveal inept management.

Why the secrecy? It points to a glaring need for additional reform of Illinois laws governing lobbyists. If organizations have the right to press their interests before legislators, ordinary taxpayers should have the right to see what they're up to.

Recent changes to Illinois law require ethics training for lobbyists and reports on spending and gifts for government employees and officials being lobbied.

But they don't go far enough. Lobbyists in Illinois should be required to report more of their activities, including detailing their contracts with clients, the amount of their fees, and the elected officials and agencies contacted on the clients' behalf. The Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, founded by the late Sen. Paul Simon and former Lt. Gov. Bob Kustra, backs those measures as well as a mandatory waiting period between leaving a government job and getting a lobbying job.

Government agencies, now exempt from some lobbyist registration requirements, should have stricter standards. Clearly, reports created by lobbyists for government clients need to be placed in public view, either through a ruling by the Illinois attorney general specifying that they fall under the Freedom of Information Act or through legislative action.