When I was elected to the legislature, my goal was to empower the people. Like many I have met in our district, I am not satisfied with the political legislative process where entrenched special interest groups, represented by high-power lobbyists and lawyers, are able to pass or preserve laws that benefit a select few at the expense of the people. In most cases, the people are unaware of the protectionist laws that increase your cost of business, reduce your choices, or fund an old program that has been made obsolete by technology.
These laws and programs are nearly impossible to repeal, and new ones are added every year at your expense. Why don’t enough legislators say no to laws that benefit lobbyist-backed groups, but harm the people? First, the benefit to the special interest group is substantial, but the harm to each individual person is small. For example, a law that costs the average South Dakotan $20/year in higher prices could create an economic windfall for a group of 1,000 specialists to the tune of $16,000 each!
If someone tries to repeal that law, there’s 1,000 people willing to spend big money ($16 million if necessary) donate to candidates, drive to pierre, take out ads, and hire lobbyists to convince legislators that this law is popular, provides consumer protection and is in your best interest. The groups can afford to pay lobbyists–who are often lawyers–10 times as much as a legislator to build the case for their special law and argue the case year-round!
Incidentally, that’s how the laws got passed in the first place. And there are dozens, maybe hundreds of such laws in South Dakota, each benefiting a small group of individuals at your expense. Just one special interest protection can create a multi-million dollar incentive for a group to hire lobbyists to represent them, but what about the people? Who are we hiring to represent us, and how much are we willing to pay?
The answer surprised me, and is the reason I confidently state that there is not enough money in politics. With 105 legislative positions in the state, less than $1 million was spent on all campaigns to elect them–whereas millions are spent each year on ads and lobbyists for these special-interest laws.
Where would you guess this small amount of money that is spent on candidate campaigns comes from? If you said the people they represent, I’m sorry–that’s rarely the case. One typical candidate report I just looked at showed that only 11% came from regular individual contributors. The vast majority came from special interest groups who have paid lobbyists.
I don’t mean to say all lobbyists have a bad agenda. Some are actually hired by concerned citizens to stop these kinds of laws from being passed. I am saying that when it comes to dollars, we the people are severely outnumbered. The good news is, while special interest groups have big incentives to hire lobbyists, we have a greater incentive.
Over 40% of our earnings each year are taken from us in the form of federal, state, and local taxes. It is economically foolish NOT to spend 1% of our income hiring our own lobbyists or candidates, who will work to reduce our taxes by 1%, make sure they are spent wisely, and say no to laws that cost us money and benefit a privileged few. Would you believe a financial planner who wants to invest 40% of your money, but tells you there is no management fee?
Ideally, our representatives would be that person. But with an annual salary of $6,000 and the campaigns funded primarily by special interest groups, it discourages the kind of people you want representing you from running for office. Normal people dislike fundraising, taking money from special interest groups, and can’t afford to leave their jobs for 3 months a year, let alone all of the additional time it requires to do a good job.
To be clear, I do not think increasing salaries is the answer. What I am advocating for is a group of people in the district gathering together on a set of clear principles, and contributing 1% of their income to good government. They could hire a lobbyist who will work for their principles and actually answer to them.
We don’t want special interest money to be the dominant force in politics, because we all ultimately work for whoever signs our checks. We can’t have our politicians spending 40% of our income but receiving the majority of their contributions from special interests. Because when it comes to government, you get what you pay for–and right now, someone else is paying!
That’s why I say there’s not enough of our money in politics. If we as individuals would voluntarily spend even $10 a month on good government, hiring lobbyists or candidates instead of them coming to us, we would overwhelm the special interest money (both federal and state), and have people in Pierre and Washington not just claiming to work for us, they would literally work for us.