A big chunk of lobbying in Mass. is not tracked
Cities, towns are active on Beacon Hill but their activity treated differently
IN MARCH, Professor Julia Payson of New York University addressed a small group who had gathered at Boston University’s Initiative on Cities to hear about the new book she wrote — When Cities Lobby.
Dr. Payson told the small crowd that the inspiration for her book came while she was a graduate student in California listening to NPR, and a strange statistic popped up: local governments in California are the state’s top spenders on lobbyists, spending more than any individual private interest. Included in that number were not only outside firms, but in-house lobbyists who worked directly for local governments. This is notable in a state where Silicon Valley billionaires, Hollywood studio heads, and some of the highest-grossing farmers in the country all live, work, and lobby.
Throughout her talk, Payson repeatedly pointed to something her book revealed: Massachusetts was an outlier among states, with records indicating between 0 percent and 15 percent of cities and towns in the state spend money on lobbying.
Joining Payson on the panel was Claire Kelly, the city of Boston’s intergovernmental relations director. Payson pointed out that Kelly would be required to register as a lobbyist in most other states. Kelly acknowledged as much, saying, “Yesterday I didn’t think of myself as a lobbyist,” and leaving unanswered whether the discussion had changed her mind.
The lack of registered lobbyists for local governments in Massachusetts means that the contacts between staff for local governments, state legislators, and executive branch agencies are not tracked. Unlike in states where this practice is common, and in-house staff like Kelly register as lobbyists, no data exists to answer questions like what action is this town or that town taking in regard to state legislative activity. Instead, reporters and residents who wonder what their local government is seeking from their state government are left to make suppositions from public actions.
One example is the commentary that appeared recently in CommonWealth written by Framingham and Holyoke’s economic development directors, arguing in favor of expanding a popular residential real estate incentive in the upcoming budget. Was this commentary part of a wider plan with other staff to push legislators to support the program? The answer may be yes, but there is no publicly available tracking of that action. When a trade association executive makes similar comments, that activity is reflected in their lobbying filing with the state, which shows who, what, and for which bills lobbying occurred.
With a lot of activity on housing taking place, what actions in-house staff of local communities are taking would be good to know. A great example is the MBTA Communities Act, the most ambitious housing production bill the Legislature has passed in decades. After passage, it had a long and complicated rule-making process for how that law would be enforced, and now there is renewed attention on the bill after Attorney General Andrea Campbell threatened to take legal action against towns who do not comply.
With opposition to that bill increasing, especially in well-heeled communities that have successfully resisted multi-family development for decades, transparency is more important than ever. Which communities, and which staff, are engaged in what amounts to lobbying on the issue would be useful for advocates and the press to know, especially as pressure grows to take new actions on housing, including proposed transfer fees on multimillion dollar home sales to rent control to state-wide legalization of accessory dwelling units.Massachusetts already boasts one of the most opaque state legislatures in the country, and Payson’s book should start a conversation about which interactions between local governments and the state and federal governments amount to lobbying.
Gregory Maynard is a Brockton-based political consultant who has managed or consulted on dozens of state and municipal races, including for the mayors of Revere, Somerville, and Brockton.