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States outpace Congress in upgrading lobbying laws

24 states have made disclosure strides since 2003

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 Updated:

As Congress struggles to maintain public trust in the midst of the lobbying scandal raging in Washington D.C., members could look to the states for ways to revamp the federal system.

Since the original 2003 "Hired Guns" report, lawmakers in almost half the states — sometimes prompted by scandals — have beefed up their disclosure laws, but federal legislators haven't.A Center for Public Integrity survey that evaluated the strength of lobbying disclosure laws nationwide found the federal law to be weaker than those of 47 of the 50 states.

"The federal law is pretty terrible," said Robert M. Stern, president of the nonpartisan Center for Governmental Studies, who helped write California's 1974 political reform law.

"Congress should be looking to the states," Stern said, because "states have had tremendous experience with enforcing and administering these laws. They are not that hard to enforce."

While no state earned an "A" when graded on providing the public with full disclosure on behind-the-scenes lobbying in the 2003 survey, Washington state had the highest score, 87 points out of a possible 100. The federal law tied with New Hampshire, earning a failing grade of 36 — almost two and a half times lower. Only Pennsylvania and Wyoming received worse marks.

What's more, 24 states have taken steps either to strengthen their laws or to implement or improve electronic disclosure systems in the two and a half years since the Center's study. At least another eight states have considered or are working on changes.

In comparison, while the Senate Office of Public Records began putting federal lobby spending reports on the Internet in 2001, federal lobbying disclosure laws haven't been modified in the last eight years.

The Center for Public Integrity has studied lobbying in the states since 2002, including tracking overall spending, which neared the $1 billion markin 2004 with only 42 states able to report a total. In 2005, the Center launched, "LobbyWatch," an ongoing investigation into federal lobbying, featuring a searchable database of spending disclosures.

Range of revisions

Of the 24 states that made lobby law changes since the May 2003 report, 16 made substantive changes to existing regulations. The various measures included: requiring more frequent filings, requiring reporting of lobbying on state contracts, requiring disclosure of executive branch lobbying, and banning contingency fees. Seven of the remaining eight states put new electronic disclosure systems in place, and the Hawaii Ethics Commission began posting scanned copies of lobby disclosure filings on its Web site.

Georgia, New Jersey, North Carolina and Tennessee were among the states with the most-revised rules. In addition to other provisions, the law in each state established a "cooling-off" period, which prohibits legislators from registering as lobbyists for a set period of time after leaving office.

In Florida, another state with several rule changes, a stringent ban on legislators accepting gifts from lobbyists and a requirement that lobbyists disclose the amount of money they make to lobby were approved. However, the Florida Association of Professional Lobbyists and others filed a lawsuit challenging the legislation on Feb. 17.

Such new laws will no doubt raise the scores of many states in the Center's nationwide rankings when they are revised and updated later this year. For example, Georgia's revisions could earn the state 14 additional points, bringing its lobby disclosure score to 77 and pushing its ranking into the top tier.

Pennsylvania remains the only state in the union with no statute mandating lobbying disclosure, but the state Senate does require those who lobby that chamber to register. Its House of Representatives never passed a corresponding rule.

Change spurred by state scandals

Similar to the current push in Congress, the changes to lobbying laws in many states were spurred by political scandals. According to Stern, "states seem to be much more responsive to scandals" because the lawmakers are closer to constituents.

The Tennessee General Assembly, for example, met in a special session called by Gov. Phil Bredesen in January to pursue reforms in reaction to the "Tennessee Waltz" federal sting operation, which centered on unethical lobbying practices. The undercover investigation led to the May 2005 arrests of five current or former lawmakers on charges of accepting bribes, conspiracy and extortion.

Lobbying and outside oversight of legislative conduct are at the center of the legislation in Tennessee. Ironically, as reported by the NashvilleTennessean, lobbyists came out of the woodwork during the special session to offer campaign donations, along with their thoughts on the reform law.The special session started on the same date as any year's regular session would have, but while state law prohibited lobbyists from making donations to legislators during the regular session, there was no prohibition during special sessions.

The final measure, passed on Feb. 6, closed that loophole. It prohibits employers of lobbyists from making campaign contributions to legislators or the governor anytime the General Assembly is in session.

Tennessee's law goes further for individual lobbyists, restricting them from giving the governor and members of the legislature — or candidates for those offices — campaign donations at any time during the year. But some critics of the final legislation say it does not go far enough, noting that lobbyists are still allowed to donate to political caucus committees.

When the governor signed the bill into law on Feb. 15, Tennessee joined Connecticut, Kentucky and South Carolina in banning outright any campaign donations by lobbyists. (Connecticut's ban, passed in 2005, will take effect in 2007.)

Ohio is one of the most recent states to consider changes to its lobbying law in reaction to ethics scandals. Gov. Bob Taft, who pleaded guilty to four charges of not disclosing gifts and golf outings paid for by lobbyists last year, put forward a package of ethics proposals on Feb. 9, including a requirement that lobbyists report the fees they receive.

"We must review these laws on a regular basis to stay a step ahead of those that may be looking for loopholes and ways to abuse the process," Taft said in a news release.

According to Stateline.org's roundup of statehouse ethics scandals, "His troubles grew out of an unfolding scandal dubbed 'Coingate' involving Tom Noe, a Republican powerbroker who faces criminal charges and a civil suit after he convinced the state to invest workers' compensation funds in rare coin accounts that he controlled."

Federal proposals vs. state laws

The proposals from either side of the aisle in Congress in recent weeks match up on a few points. This is how they compare with state measures:

TopicFederal ProposalsState Laws
"Revolving Door" ProvisionsDemocrats and Republicans: 
Extend "cooling-off" period for lawmakers to lobby former colleagues from one year to two years
  • Six states have a two-year ban
  • 19 states have a one-year ban (Georgia's will take effect in 2007) [correction]
  • North Carolina has a six-month ban (to take effect in 2007)
  • Arkansas and Michigan don't allow a legislator to register as a lobbyist until the expiration of office term
  • Wisconsin's one-year revolving door ban specifically exempts legislators
(See State Legislator Revolving Door Provisions Chart)
Gift ProvisionsDemocrats: 
Prohibit gifts from lobbyists 

Republicans: Further limit gifts from lobbyists (decrease maximum allowed from $50 to $20 per gift and from $100 to $50 in cumulative gifts from each giver in a year)
  • At least seven states ban lobbyist gifts (Florida passed new ban at end of 2005)
  • Kentucky and South Carolina also prohibit lobbyists from making campaign contributions at any time
  • Remaining states limit and require reporting of lobbyist gifts
  • No states follow the federal government's example of not requiring lobbyists to report gifts, leaving gift reporting to the officials
(See State Lobby Disclosure Comparison 2003 Chart)
Lobby Disclosure FilingsDemocrats and Republicans: 
Increase frequency of lobby disclosure filings (currently required twice a year)
  • 12 states require monthly spending reports (some only during session, some year-round)
  • North Carolina increased disclosure to monthly filings during session (to take effect in 2007)
  • Seven states require quarterly disclosure
  • Five states require only annual reports
(See State Lobby Disclosure Comparison 2003 Chart)

Outside oversight

The federal bill put forward by the Democratic leadership would set up an independent agency to collect and monitor compliance of lobbying disclosure reports. Currently, regarding state legislative lobbyists:

  • 27 states set up independent agencies to oversee lobbying disclosure.
  • 18 states leave lobbying oversight to the secretaries of state.
  • four state legislatures and the Pennsylvania Senate maintain records of their chambers' lobbyists.

Congress and 37 states recognize lobbying of the executive branch in their statutes. That includes Indiana and Louisiana, which changed their laws since the Center's 2003 survey to include lobbying of the governor and other state agencies. Most of these states leave oversight to the same agencies that regulate legislative lobbyists, but Florida, Iowa, Kentucky and Indiana have separate agencies to regulate executive branch lobbyists.

Many public interest groups are calling for more outside ethical oversight of Congress. Common Cause, among others, wants to see an independent commission created to "investigate congressional ethics misconduct." Along those lines, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., recently introduced legislation "to establish an Office of Public Integrity in the Congress and a Congressional Ethics Enforcement Commission."

The Center's 2001 study of legislative conduct oversight, "Watchdogs on Short Leashes," found that 23 states had independent commissions that have at least minimal authority to investigate or enforce violations of ethics rules. In 2003, Illinois established some outside oversight of legislators' behavior; Tennessee's new ethics legislation also puts outside oversight in place, increasing the overall number to 25.

In most of the states that lack any form of independent oversight, lawmakers regulate themselves through a committee process similar to that used by the U.S. Congress.

Some legislature-watchers say that's fine. Among them is Alan Rosenthal, a professor at Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics, to whom the Center spoke for its "Watchdogs on Short Leashes" study. Rosenthal said that self-regulation is preferable "because I believe that, whenever possible, the legislature should take responsibility squarely for its ethics. And I think they can."

Others, such as the Center for Governmental Studies' Stern, strongly disagree. "There has to be some independent oversight. Legislative ethics committees just don't work," he said.

Not all bad

Though the federal lobbying disclosure law scores poorly in the Center survey, there are some solid provisions in place. For example:

  • While not mandatory, the federal government makes it possible for lobbyists to file spending reports electronically. In 2003, 14 states provided the same service. Today, 10 more allow lobbyists to file disclosures online and at least three others — Alaska, Florida and Tennessee — are working on implementing of electronic disclosure.
  • Federal lobbyists are required to report their salaries and fees for representing their clients' interests before lawmakers, unlike lobbyists in 20 states. A total of 30 states now require lobbyists and/or those who hire them to lobby to report compensation (Florida passed this requirement at the end of 2005 and Tennessee passed it in February 2006). In Pennsylvania, not included in the previous count due to its lack of a disclosure statute, those who lobby the Senate also must register with that body and report compensation.

But given all the recent talk in Washington, some see new federal lobbying regulations as likely.

"Congress will pass something," Stern predicted. "The question is will that something be good? It will be better than what we have now. The question is, how much better?"

David Jimenez is a research intern at the Center for Public Integrity. Research intern Davinia Seay contributed to this report.

Correction: The correct number of states with a one-year revolving door provision is 19. New Mexico does not have a one-year cooling-off period before legislators can become lobbyists, as the Center previously reported, which brings the total down one from 20. In fact, legislators are specifically exempted from the state revolving door provision that applies to other public officials.