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Editorial: Be clear-eyed about need for lobbyists

Particularly amid a pandemic where future revenue is not certain, Rowan County commissioners should ensure they are clear-eyed and sure of their reasoning for unbudgeted expenditures.

That doesn’t seem to be the case for a proposal to hire federal and state lobbyists. Commissioners Chairman Greg Edds on Tuesday justified his request by saying he wants to secure more grant money.

“For the six years that I’ve been commissioner, I’ve been happy for surrounding communities as I’ve seen that they’ve been able to make announcements on federal and state grants,” Edds said. “Frankly, to be honest with you, sometimes I feel like I’m outside in the rain peering through the window watching how the party is going.”

Edds said the county hasn’t ever hired a lobbyist and, as a result, he and other officials started talking to EQV Strategic, a lobbying firm based in North Carolina. After roughly an hour of conversation during Tuesday’s meeting, Edds said that he was ready to “move ahead.”

But there wasn’t a clear definition about what commissioners hoped to achieve by hiring a lobbyist, other than Edds’ statement. It’s better to present a narrowly tailored task than to start a relationship with an undefined goal. That’s why it was good to see commissioners Judy Klusman, Craig Pierce and Mike Caskey ask for more time. County officials should press pause indefinitely on hiring a lobbyist, whether its EQV Strategic or anyone, until there’s a specific goal.

If the goal is to secure grants, hiring a lobbying firm is like using a shotgun to kill a fly. It’s the wrong tool for the job. If commissioners feel like they’re missing out on grants, the best solution is to hire a talented grant writer — a position they previously voted to create but no longer appears to be on the staff list.

Another point: Rowan County has experienced legislators who have proven their worth in securing money for the community. From money for a stage in the town of Faith to $1.5 million for the N.C. Transportation Museum in a recently passed round of COVID-19 relief, local legislators have brought home plenty of bacon. But if there’s money we’re missing out on, it’s important to decide which lobbying firm is best.

With experienced Republican legislators who have developed a good relationship, just how valuable is hiring a lobbying firm with a background in Republican Party politics? Would it be more valuable to hire a balanced firm or one with a background in Democratic Party politics? Maybe Rowan County actually needs to hire a firm with deeper roots in Washington, D.C.

For better or worse, lobbyists are a part of modern politics, and it’s critical that Rowan County commissioners do a better job of defining what they’re looking for before they take a final vote.

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