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State agencies spending millions on lobbyists

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State agencies in Massachusetts spend millions of dollars hiring well-connected lobbyists to lobby other state employees. Gov. Deval Patrick says it's a waste of money and has filed legislation to stop it, but state lawmakers have killed that legislation not once, but twice.

With the economy struggling and the state dealing with a serious budget deficit, you would think cost-cutting measures would be welcomed by the Legislature, but one such savings proposal -- to bar state agencies from spending public funds on lobbyists -- continues to get shot down by lawmakers.

"I think it's unnecessary and I do think it's a waste of money," says Administration and Finance Secretary Jay Gonzalez, Patrick's top budget advisor. Gonzalez is also the governor’s point man in his effort to stop state agencies from spending millions of dollars on outside lobbyists.

Lobbyists are routinely hired by private companies to protect their interests in Beacon Hill. But in this case, it's state agencies hiring the lobbyists to roam the corridors of the State House.

"We should not be paying lobbyists with public funds in order to lobby state government," Gonzalez says. "It doesn't make any sense for public funds to be used in that way."

According to Gonzalez, the lobbyists are not only costly, they're unnecessary. "The officials who work at these public agencies have relationships with state government, with the Legislature, with the administration," he says. "We can work with them on all of their issues directly. We don't need a lobbyist intermediary being paid for with state public funds needed for other purposes, particularly in these times."

Records show public funds are indeed being spent on lobbyists, and it adds up to a lot of money. In the last four and a half years, state authorities and state colleges spent more than $4 million on lobbyists. The Massachusetts Convention Center Authority spent $334,795. The Massachusetts Housing Financing Agency, known as Mass Housing, spent $401,658. Massachusetts Bay Community College spent $102,780.

"Most people cannot believe that the government is going out and hiring a lobbying agency to lobby the government. It doesn't make any sense," says Senate Minority Leader Richard Tisei.

Tisei, a Republican, has found rare common ground with the Democratic governor on the issue of government lobbyists. "We've tried during past budget debates to bring up amendments to institute a ban on doing that because it doesn't make any sense at all," says the senator. "It's something I think that should really get people's blood boiling, because it's insane that that would be happening."

Twice this year Gov. Patrick has tried to bar agencies from hiring lobbyists. He included an outside section titled, "No Lobbyists fir State Entities," in his proposed budget in January, and when lawmakers did not pass it, put the same outside section in a supplementary budget bill in June. It failed again.

According to Senate and House lawmakers, the governor's first proposed ban was approved by the Senate, but killed by a joint House-Senate conference committee. A few months later, the House knocked it out of the supplementary budget before it sent the bill to the Senate.

A spokesman for Senate President Therese Murray says the leader of the Senate is willing to take another look at the issue if the governor resubmits it. That's not likely in the House, however. House Speaker Robert DeLeo would not talk to us about it, instead sending us to the House Ways and Means Committee.

Charles Murphy, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, argues that banning state lobbyists would actually lead to additional spending by state agencies. In a statement, Murphy said: ""The unintended consequences of the governor's proposal would lead to agencies hiring more permanent, full-time staff. Along with the new hires would come added pension and health care costs at a time we can least afford such new expenses."

But that statement does not mention the fact that many of the lobbyists benefiting from lobbying contracts with state agencies and state colleges are themselves former lawmakers and State House aides.

That's not lost on Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts. She points out that lobbyists have a special interest, and possibly special influence, in the fight over the ban on government lobbyists.

"I'm sure that the firms that have these contract are certainly fighting tooth and nail to keep them," says Wilmot. "And they have plenty of connections and friends in the Legislature that probably are willing to stand and go to bat for them."

Gov. Patrick's aides say he will step up to the plate again in January and include in his next budget the same outside section barring state agencies and state colleges from hiring lobbyists.

Tom Farmer, a spokesman for one of the state agencies that employs lobbyists, Mass Housing, defended the practice. Farmer noted that Mass Housing is not funded by taxpayer money and said: "Our legislative agents are critical to helping us identify, analyze and monitor hundreds of bills filed every year that affect our mission, programs and the low-and moderate-income people we help."

The Massachusetts Convention Center Authority says it terminated its lobbyist in February, after learning about the ban proposed by the governor.

Do you know about wasteful government spending? Call Mike Beaudet at 800-TV FOX 25.

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