Water manager’s lobbyist costs under scrutiny, ban possible

Rachel Leingang//October 2, 2017

Water manager’s lobbyist costs under scrutiny, ban possible

Rachel Leingang//October 2, 2017

A water installation flows downtown Gilbert, Ariz. (Photo by Ellen O'Brien/Arizona Capitol Times)
A water installation flows downtown Gilbert, Ariz. (Photo by Ellen O’Brien/Arizona Capitol Times)

The Central Arizona Project has paid more than $2.5 million for lobbyists in Arizona and Washington D.C. over the past five years, an analysis of the agency’s lobbying contracts shows.

The water canal system’s lobbying costs came under fire from Gov. Doug Ducey’s office as part of meetings he has convened to lay out future plans for water policy.

In early proposals of what the meetings would cover, the Governor’s Office suggested banning Central Arizona Water Conservation District, CAP’s manager, from hiring federal lobbyists. More recent documents from the meetings show lobbying costs could be considered as part of required performance audits from the state’s auditor general.

The $2.5 million on lobbying over five years is a tiny fraction of CAP’s budget, its spokeswoman, Crystal Thompson, said in an email. During those five years, CAP’s overall budget amounted to $1.25 billion, so the lobbying money was only 0.2 percent of the agency’s budget, she pointed out.

From 2012 to 2015, Robert Lynch was CAP’s lobbyist in D.C. at $70,000 per year. CAP also had a contract for federal lobbying services with Bracy, Tucker, Brown and Valanzano from 2010 to 2016 at $20,000 per month.

Now, the law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck lobbies for CAP in Washington. Their contract at $210,000 per year ends in May 2018.

At the state level, Don Isaacson has lobbied on CAP’s behalf for 33 years, CAP said. Its current contract, which started in January 2016 and ends in December 2017, is for $182,000.

“His historic knowledge of the legislative history of the CAWCD, and water issues in general, is invaluable and his partner, Cheyenne Walsh, is equally adept,” Thompson said.

But the lobbying costs in general, whatever they may be, are just a distraction, CAP claims.

“Whether or not the CAP utilizes the services of consultants to help understand the politics of the nation’s capitol or the state capitol is not the issue – prolonged drought conditions and the effect on Arizona’s Colorado River allocation is the issue,” Thompson said.

The governor’s water meetings have been punctuated with clashes between CAP and the state, which claims CAP has operated outside its authority on various issues, from water deals to court cases.

The meetings aren’t open to the general public, and the documents and agendas are not publicly posted. There will likely be a host of proposals that become bills in the next legislative session.

CAP has repeatedly said the meetings mark a change in how the state has approached water issues. In the past, though groups had varying interests, there wasn’t a high level of political infighting. Now, the tone has changed.

“CAP respectfully asks Governor Ducey to open up the process he has begun and lead a genuine effort of principled cooperation that has been the hallmark of Arizona gubernatorial leadership for more than five decades,” Thompson said.

The topic of lobbying costs has not been discussed verbally at recent water meetings, CAP and the Department of Water Resources both confirmed.

While cost for lobbyists is a concern for the Governor’s Office, the need for the state to speak with one voice on water issues is the larger point of the water meetings and any proposals that come out of them, Ducey spokesman Daniel Scarpinato said. Lobbying on opposite sides of an issue would run counter to the “speaking with one voice” issue, he said.

But it would be premature to say whether Ducey’s office would pursue a lobbying ban or include lobbying costs in audits at this point, Scarpinato said.

An audit of CAP was initiated by the Legislature last year, and the Governor’s Office is interested in seeing the results, he said.

And there’s also the fact that Ducey issued an executive order last year banning state agencies from hiring contract lobbyists.

“Our office isn’t a huge fan of public dollars paying for lobbyists,” Scarpinato said. “But I think we want to get to a place where entities can do their job, advocate for their users, but also be part of a state effort and a state approach to our water future.”

CAP said it’s necessary to have a federal lobbyist on hand because of the aqueduct system’s ongoing relationship with the federal government. CAP, which was initially formed as part of contract with the U.S. secretary of the Interior, also has a contract with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation to deliver water, Thompson said. It’s important to have an experienced government affairs group working at the federal level to maintain these relationships, she said.

Thompson also sent several links to other lobbying contracts for public entities both at the state and federal levels in response to questions from the Arizona Capitol Times about its lobbyists. Other contracts show the annual contract prices for CAP aren’t out of the ordinary.

Minutes from a 2016 city of Phoenix meeting show the city would pay $108,000 to Ballard Spahr, $54,000 to the Aarons Company and $90,000 to Axiom Public Affairs (which was recently rebranded Compass Strategies).

Mohave County pays $12,000 to HighGround for government affairs, minutes from a July meeting show.

A price sheet for the City of Tucson shows lobbying expenses should not exceed $222,000 per year.