Under pressure

Hot-button issues spur lobby spending as some states weaken disclosure

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 Updated:

Lobbyists in 41 states reported spending more than $889 million wining, dining and influencing state lawmakers in 2003, according to a new study by the Center for Public Integrity. That figure is up from the $720 million of lobbyist spending reported in 40 states in 2002.

A year-to-year comparison of the nationwide total for spending on state lobbying was not possible because of variations among state disclosure requirements. Some states do not require lobbyists to disclose their spending each year. Among those 37 states that do have reporting mechanisms roughly comparable to 2002, 29 reported some increase in spending. Twenty states saw increases in spending of at least 10 percent, and eight of them—Delaware, Florida, Maine, Montana, Ohio, Oregon, Texas and Wyoming—saw increases of 30 percent or more.

The majority of this money goes to pay for a lobbyist's most important asset: time. Because state oversight agencies often do not break down total lobby spending into salaries and expenditures, it is impossible to determine the exact percentage of salaries paid. But a state like Connecticut, where the state Ethics Commission does categorize lobby spending, offers a good example of the sort of money at stake. In 2003, lobbyists pulled in $27.3 million and spent $2.7 million on entertainment, paid media, solicitation, office and other expenses combined. That 10 to one ratio is not unusual when it can be determined.

Of the 41 states reporting overall spending totals, 16 did not include information on salaries or fees paid to compensate lobbyists for their efforts. In Texas, lobbyists disclose salaries in a range. The Texas Ethics Commission reported that lobbyists earned somewhere between $132,485,542 and $516,155,477 for their efforts.

Two states—Missouri and North Dakota—were able for the first time to provide an overall total of lobby spending. Nevada also reported partial figures for 2003, but had not for 2002, because lobbyists there report their spending only for months when the legislature is in session – February to July in odd-numbered years. Pennsylvania has not compiled a spending total this year because of a lapse in its reporting statute, and North Carolina will release a 2003 total but has not done so yet.

Hot issues spark spending increase in New York, Florida

Lobbyists' time and money poured into a host of hot-button issues across the country. Two in particular—restrictions on medical malpractice lawsuit awards and further deregulation of telecommunications—attracted special attention.

In New York, intense lobbying over tort reform contributed to a 22 percent increase in spending, from $92 to about $112 million, the first time the total reached or exceeded $100 million. (New York's overall state total of $120 million included lobbying expenditures at the local level.) In Florida, which saw an increase to more than $9 million—more than twice the amount spent in 2002—the hot issue was telephone service rates.

Two of the most contentious public policy issues in the nation—medical malpractice insurance and tort reform—have turned doctors and lawyers into "the Hatfields and McCoys of state politics," as the Miami Herald put it. Associations for both groups have raised and spent millions of dollars over the past four years.

In New York, lawyers and doctors spent at least $1 million each lobbying for their respective positions, resulting in a sort of legislative stalemate.

The same is true of Florida, where the Florida Medical Association and the Academy of Florida Trial Lawyers have taken their case directly to voters in the form of constitutional amendments. Not surprisingly, lobbying dollars in the state jumped a whopping 128 percent from 2002 to 2003; totals for neither year reflect salaries paid to lobbyists.

The telecommunications industry has also been lobbying aggressively. Throughout 2003, in several states, the issue of rate-increase caps spurred the major local phone companies—SBC Communications, BellSouth, Verizon and Qwest—to deploy lobbyists around the capitals and fight rate freezes. During 2003, some of those same lobbyists contributed millions of dollars to various Florida campaigns; the state Senate in 2004 extended a rule to forbid legislators from raising money during session. Nevertheless, the flood of gifts, meals and parties continues unabated.

The telecommunications issue also showed one of lobbying's more unseemly sides. As reported by the Miami Herald earlier this year, during a vote in the House on a bill to freeze local telephone rates, Eliseo Gomez, a BellSouth vice president and lobbyist, placed a call to Rep. Julio Robaina, a Republican who represents part of Miami and is also a longtime BellSouth employee. (Florida has a "citizen legislature," where legislators spend part of the year in session and the rest at another job.) The call occurred literally as voting took place, and lasted long enough that Robaina missed the vote. The Herald reported that witnesses described the legislator as visibly "flustered and teary-eyed" by the end of the call; he then proceeded to cast a late vote with the House clerk, which he subsequently changed twice, finally voting in favor of the freeze. Robaina would not disclose the substance of the phone call and told the newspaper that he didn't want to "pick a fight" with anyone. Gomez denied having threatened Robaina's employment status, but admitted to having lobbied hard for a vote against the rate freeze. Nevertheless, the incident disturbed many of the lawmakers who witnessed it. The freeze lost in the House by a wide margin.

Rolling back regulations

The Center for Public Integrity's May 2003 report on state lobbying, "Hired Guns," found that more than half the states received a failing grade for their lobbyist registration and spending disclosure requirements, leaving many details about how lobbying dollars are spent hidden from public view. In fact, no state received an "A" on the Center's 48-question survey.

In the year since that release, the Center found that while some states have been working to strengthen lobby disclosure requirements, several have weakened theirs. Pennsylvania remains the only state in the union lacking basic lobbying regulations in state statute. In the year since the report was published, the Center's ranking and Pennsylvania's score of 0 have been cited by several newspapers and citizen groups seeking to reinstate the lobbying laws that were struck down by a state Supreme Court decision in 2002. A recent clarification by the Court has paved the way for new regulations, and bills are currently in the drafting stage in the Pennsylvania House and Senate. Currently, however, there are no statutory reporting requirements for lobbyists.

In 2003, the Alaska legislature voted to significantly relax lobbyists' registration requirements. Two separate bills—HB 106 and SB 89—introduced in 2003 essentially re-defined lobbying. According to Tammy Kempton of the Alaska Public Offices Commission, the agency that regulates lobbyists, the definition is now vague and easily confused.

A lobbyist used to be defined as a person who represents himself or who is contracted to represent a third party to influence legislation. Both bills altered the definition by including an hour-based trigger to require registration and reporting by lobbyists only after they had spent a certain number of hours a month influencing legislation (HB 106 put that number at 40 hours; SB 89, at 80). Ultimately, the bill Gov. Frank Murkowksi signed into law changed the trigger to 40 hours a month.

Comparing Alaska's now significantly weakened lobbying regulations to those of Washington State, which placed at the top of the Hired Guns ranking in 2003, Kempton identified the latter as a model that the APOC strives to emulate. "The basic problem with the law…is that we do not define lobbying; Washington starts from the basis of what it means to lobby," Kempton said. "[Alaska legislators] start with 'what is a lobbyist and how can we write the law so that you don't have to register?'"

From 2002 to 2003, the total amount of expenditures reported by Alaska's lobbyists increased by 19 percent, from just under $12 million to well over $14 million. As a result of the new law, expenditure reporting will likely drop for 2004—although the same amount of money, if not more, will likely be spent influencing legislation.

Disclosure in flux

The disparity in the registration and reporting requirements for lobbyists among the 50 states is no less apparent now than it was a year ago; regulations continue to fluctuate as lawmakers, lobbyists and citizens advocate both for and against more regulations. Among recent developments:

Alabama Gov. Bob Riley announced a series of ethics reform initiatives in January of 2004, to be considered in the current legislative session that runs through May 17. Included in Riley's proposals are reforms to the disclosure laws for lobbyists, including abolishing the reporting exemption of lobbyists who spend less than $250 per day entertaining legislators. In addition, Riley proposed registration and reporting requirements for executive branch lobbyists, who are currently exempt.

In Arizona, Rep. Gary Pearce (R-Mesa) introduced legislation early in 2004 that would eliminate revolving-door restrictions from lobbying regulations in that state. For 10 years, ex-lawmakers have had to wait one full year before registering to lobby their former colleagues in the legislature. Pearce's bill is currently under committee review.

Colorado state Rep. Shawn Mitchell (R-Broomfield) used a rare legislative procedure, called a "super motion," to call a halt to committee testimony on a bill and force a vote on whether to send it to the floor of the House. The bill would have restricted Colorado lawmakers from serving as paid political consultants on ballot issues and campaigns; currently, lawmakers are restricted from functioning as paid lobbyists. The bill was defeated by Republican committee members— on a five to four party-line vote, even though two Republicans who have worked as consultants abstained. Explaining why he used the super motion to halt testimony and call for a vote, Mitchell told the Denver Post, "It was 12:30 and I had a lunch meeting with a lobbyist."

Even as a potential violation of existing lobbying regulations occurred in the Georgia State Senate, sweeping reforms of those regulations failed to pass both houses of the legislature. Gov. Sonny Perdue introduced legislation aimed at correcting the state's inability to fine lobbyists for not filing timely disclosure statements, and the Senate tacked on a few amendments that would have banned all gifts from lobbyists to legislators. The bill passed in the Senate but died in committee in the House. In April of 2004, the State Ethics Board opened an investigation into the potential violation by Patrick Gartland, a regional advocate for the U.S. Small Business Administration, who failed to register with the Board before lobbying a Senate committee about a pending bill in January of 2004. The bill, which some business groups favored, also passed in the Senate but died in the House.

In late March, the Kansas House of Representatives passed a bill 64-58 that will amend the disclosure requirements for lobbyists' spending reports by exempting money spent on meals and anything else of less than $25 in value. A similar measure is under consideration in the Kansas Senate. The Wichita Eagle reported that under the requirements of the new bill, 80 percent of the spending reports filed by lobbyists in 2003 would have gone unreported. Both the Eagle and the Kansas City Star have been extensively tracking lobbyist gifts to legislators as the legislation has come under consideration.

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco has introduced ethics legislation that would expand the registration and reporting requirements to include executive branch lobbyists, part of a broader package that would reform campaign finance laws. However, Blanco's legislation fails to take into account the recommendations of the Louisiana Public Affairs Council, which has recommended an outright ban on gifts and meals from lobbyists to legislators.

In January of 2004, New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey signed into law a new ethics reform package that prohibits lobbyists from giving gifts to legislators.

In February of 2004, the New York Temporary State Commission on Lobbying briefly went out of service after attorneys for musician Russell Simmons challenged the constitutionality of the lobbying regulation. Simmons was under investigation for allegedly lobbying to have the state's aging, severe Rockefeller drugs laws, so named for New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller who oversaw their passage in 1973, reformed without having registered as a lobbyist. The Commission's director, David Grandeau, responded to the lawsuit by essentially siding with Simmons; he declared the existing regulations inadequate and then suspended them outright, leaving New York Attorney General Elliot Spitzer as the official with the most oversight of lobbying in the state. The regulations were reinstated, and in April the state Supreme Court ruled that the Commission had overstepped its legal authority in its vigorous investigation of Simmons.

Rhode Island Senate Majority Leader M. Teresa Paiva Weed (D-Newport) has introduced legislation that would amend the definition of a lobbyist in Rhode Island to include those who lobby the executive branch exclusively; currently lobbyists must only register in the state if they attempt to influence executive decisions related to legislative matters. Paiva introduced the legislation in April, citing questionable decisions by former Gov. Lincoln Almond's office in resolving a contract dispute with Blue Cross & Blue Shield.

A Republican candidate for governor in Utah, Jon Huntsman Jr., has presented an ethics proposal that would establish a two-year revolving-door provision that would prevent lawmakers from registering as lobbyists immediately upon leaving office, among other reforms.

Jennifer Puckett assembled numbers for this report, made possible by support from the Joyce Foundation and the Ford Foundation.

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