Lobbying firms to advocate for Lake County priorities at state, federal level: ‘It always pays for itself’

Chicago Tribune/TNS

Lake County lobbying at the state and federal levels helps policymakers understand local issues, and helps the county have a voice in the legislative process, state and county lawmakers say.

Lake County’s Legislative Committee Tuesday approved its legislative agenda, which prioritizes environmental and firearm regulations — some of which are holdover priorities from previous years, according to committee chair John Wasik.

Two lobbying firms also received contracts for advocacy on behalf of the county at the committee meeting. Hiring a lobbying firm at the federal level is something the county hasn’t done for several years, according to county officials.

The legislative agenda and lobbying contracts will be approved by the full County Board at the next meeting on Nov. 14.

Hiring a lobbying firm “pays for itself” in government grants the county receives, Wasik said. Both state and county elected officials said lobbyists help bring an expertise that the policymakers might not have.

Assistant County Administrator Matt Meyers said in the last couple years the county has benefited from state community project funding, or congressionally directed funding for capital projects, through lobbying efforts.

The county has also experienced success year after year in finding sponsors for their legislative priorities at the state level, Meyers said.

The legislative agenda for 2024 outlines county stances on state and federal issues. Statewide environmental legislation the county supports includes improving accountability for private water distributors, mandating the removal of coal ash ponds at the former coal plant in Waukegan and preserving Illinois’ wetlands.

On both the federal and state level, the County Board’s agenda supports legislation requiring the safe storage of firearms, banning the sale or possession of assault rifles, reforming the firearm ownership identification process, mandating training related to the sale or possession of firearms, and funding for gun-violence prevention.

“Most of our priorities are focused on what can the state legislature and Congress do to help Lake County deal with the various issues we have,” Wasik said.

State legislators appreciate the county’s legislative priority setting because it helps build relationships with local officials and collaboration on intergovernmental issues.

Rep. Dan Didech, D-Buffalo Grove, said he works closely with the County Board members in his district when considering legislative priorities.

“When I’m thinking about what my priorities are in Springfield, every year that I’ve been a state representative it’s been supporting the work of my local government partners,” Didech said.

Rep. Laura Faver Dias, D-Round Lake, appreciates the perspectives of local government partners, as well as lobbyists’ expertise, to inform her decision-making.

“It truly does take such a large community of people to get ... any legislation across the line,” Dias said. “I appreciate the work that the county does adding in their perspective on bills, and how it would specifically impact the county.”

Earlier this year, Dias worked with Lake County Board members on an environmental bill to give counties the authority to create bird-friendly building designs — a concern of the county to protect sensitive habitats and bird migration routes.

‘Boots on the ground’

Having lobbyists in Washington D.C. and Springfield helps the county advocate for grants, build relationships with the elected officials and navigate the legislative process, according to county officials.

“We really need those boots on the ground,” Meyers said. “Through the support of our lobbyists, they have unbelievable relationships with our legislators, they strongly understand the process and are watching out for the county’s best interests.”

New this year is a contract with McGuireWoods for federal government-level lobbying at $96,000 for the year. Meyers said the county has not contracted with federal lobbyists since the 2010s.

Meyers and Wasik both said the main reason for hiring lobbyists at the federal level for 2024 is due to the large amount of federal funding available — something an experienced lobbyist would be able to advocate for on behalf of Lake County, Meyers said.

“Since there was so much federal money on the table, we felt it was really to our advantage to have somebody who is a specialist in this to help us grab some of that infrastructure money, and money from the Inflation Reduction Act,” Wasik said.

A contract with Strategic Advocacy Group was renewed for state-level lobbying at $75,000 for the year. Contracts with lobbying firms are reviewed on a yearly basis so the committee can review the firm’s performance, Wasik said.

Didech and Dias agreed that lobbying firms can help those who aren’t working in state government daily understand the bill deadlines, committee hearings and the inner workings between the two chambers.

“I really see the role of lobbyists and advocates as resources on knowledge, on information of these topics,” Dias said. “We vote on bills facing every aspect of our world and our lives, and it’s not possible to be an expert on all of them.”

An example of successful advocacy was when Lake County received $120 million for stormwater management in 2019 — an ongoing countywide issue, according to Wasik. Money from that grant is still trickling in.

Wasik said some people might wonder why a county government invests in lobbying efforts.

“It always pays for itself,” Wasik said. “Just take the money that we have allocated for stormwater management. It’s a problem in Lake County, and we’re trying to address it. We need funding to do all the projects in every part of the county.”