Yes to more sunlight on lobbying, no to private school tax credits

As Kentucky lawmakers reconvene next week for the real business of the 2019 session, they should speed along a bill that would bring greater transparency to how state government does the people’s business, while stopping a move to subsidize private schools at public schools’ expense.

Senate President Robert Stivers is putting an overdue spotlight on how much is spent on lobbying to influence the awarding of state government bids and contracts.

Stivers should make his Senate Bill 6 stronger by expanding what is now a narrow definition of executive branch lobbying.

For the first time, under Stivers’ Senate Bill 6, the public could discover how much businesses and other interests are spending to lobby Kentucky’s executive branch, which, as Stivers recently told the Senate, awards hundreds of millions of dollars of fiercely-sought business.

Legislative lobbyists and their employers are required to report their spending and fees — often topping $20 million a year — six times annually. As the Herald-Leader’s Jack Brammer reports, no such information is counted for executive branch lobbyists even though there are more of them.

Stivers’ bill would require annual financial reports from those who engage in lobbying the executive branch.

The current definition of executive branch lobbying is too narrow, however, including only efforts to influence the awarding of contracts, grants, leases or other arrangements through which public dollars are expended. The public’s interest is much broader than that.

The public also needs to know about lobbying to influence regulation and policy — say, if a company or industry is trying to influence state agencies or officials to look the other way at pollution violations or for a favorable interpretation of tax laws for them but not a competitor.

This good bill could be better by shining as broad a light as possible on who’s spending money to influence the executive branch and why.

In the House, Majority Leader John “Bam” Carney says he will try again to win a public subsidy for private schools. Maybe he got carried away in the excitement of a Capitol rally by private school students and advocates, but Carney’s claim that Kentucky’s public schools would not suffer from his proposed tax credits for donors to private schools is ridiculous.

The lavish tax breaks that Carney has proposed in recent years — and says he will sponsor again — are as close as it gets to a direct state subsidy. A credit, which offsets what is owed in income taxes, is much more lucrative to a corporation or individual than a deduction.

The credits for scholarships to private schools could quickly decrease the state General Fund by as much as $50 million , according to a Legislative Research Commission analysis of the bill Carney filed last year — and any significant loss to the General Fund spells a loss to public education.

It’s even possible that this tax credit, when combined with federal breaks, could turn a profit for some wealthy Kentuckians, according to an analysis by the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.

Public schools’ fixed costs don’t decrease with the loss of students to private schools, though their state funding does decrease.

Carney’s bill has failed to advance in previous legislatures. This year’s version should meet the same fate.