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Steve Doherty & John Podesta: Now is the Time for State Lobbying Reform

Originally published by the Missoulian logo on January 20, 2006 by Steve Doherty & John Podesta A cancer is growing deep in our political system. Powerful lobbyists are providing lavish trips, expensive meals, and key campaign contributions not just on K Street in Washington, D.C., but to policy makers in state capitals around the country. The policy makers vote for special interest-backed legislation or even sponsor lobbyist-written bills. Jack Abramoff has become a household name for the web of corruption he built in Washington, D.C. But this web is also a very real problem in state legislatures, where lobbyists have a very powerful, and often times a stealth role in shaping public policy. In much of America, state legislators serve only part-time. In some states like Montana, these citizen legislators also have virtually no staff, leaving them hugely dependent on lobbyists for information when it comes time to vote. These same lobbyists are also often responsible for overseeing fundraising operations that state legislators use to win election and re-election. Even worse, at the state level, full public disclosure and meaningful oversight are often lacking. In many states, gifts from lobbyists to policy-makers do not need to be reported. Even when reporting requirements exist, few states make the information easily accessible. And while a powerful national press corps exists to investigate the seam relationships between Jack Abramoff and members of Congress, few states have enough aggressive political reporters to investigate the wheeling and dealing that happens in the statehouse. State legislative lobbying is a major industry worth over $1 billion yearly — yet it receives virtually no scrutiny. In Wyoming, where budgets for legislative staff are quite small, the Associated Press has reported on the extent to which legislators are forced to rely on lobbyists — lobbyists tell the elected policy makers to treat them as “staff.” Meanwhile, these same lobbyists fight disclosure rules that would tell the public how much they spend for the friendly offer to act as legislative “staff.” Sometimes the corruption becomes almost humorous. As the Palm Beach Post reported recently, Florida’s Speaker of the House actually sent a letter to 120 state legislators inviting them on a lobbyist-funded hunting trip”¦the day after the House passed legislation banning precisely these kinds of gifts. In Utah, Republican legislative leaders cleverly planned a speed “dating” PAC fundraiser where, for a donation, lobbyists could buy a little face time with legislators. The majority leader even expressed his hope that it would provide a good chance for his caucus to meet key players. It goes without saying that for too many legislators, access to big, easy money just may bring “love” at first sight. What can be done to restore trust in government in the states? Luckily, a small handful of states have pioneered reforms that can be easily copied, shaped to fit unique circumstances and applied across the country. As legislators in many states return to work this month, they should consider taking a few steps to clean up their chambers and restore trust in our system of government, starting at the state level:
  • Let the sunshine in. The easiest reform to make is to simply ensure that lobbyists and the powerful interests they represent are required to disclose their expenses in a detailed, public manner. Such disclosure forms should be easily searchable by the public so that both traditional journalists and citizens and bloggers can root out basic information.
  • Ban the gifts. Four states have issued blanket bans on gifts from lobbyists to state lawmakers. Other states should follow suit and prohibit legislators from wining and dining on the tab of special interests.
  • Slow the revolving door. Too often, term limited legislators can start negotiating for lobbying positions even before they leave office. Creating a cooling-down period before the job negotiations begin can help ensure that legislators are focused on representing the people who elected them.
  • End the pay-to-play system. Connecticut and Arizona have taken the lead in creating publicly financed elections that allow candidates to opt out of the traditional pay-to-play campaign finance system. Public financing leaves politicians to run for office uncorrupted by big money from powerful interests. It also leaves voters free to choose candidates who aren’t bought-and-paid for by special interests.
Americans are fed up with the powerful role that lobbyists play in public policy. Americans also aren’t stupid. Whether they identify themselves as liberal or conservative, independent, Republican or Democrat, they increasingly throw their lot with representatives who fight for regular people and against the special interests in the system. It will take courage for legislators to stand up to special interests. It will also require some of them to sacrifice some of the perks of their office — lavish meals, special seats at sports games, easy money slush funds — that they can unfortunately grow to appreciate so much. If state legislatures can take strong action to clean up their act, all Americans will benefit. And Washington will get a clear message that big money’s corrupting influence is simply not acceptable. Steve Doherty is the former minority leader of the Montana Senate and serves as co-chair of Progressive Legislative Action Network. John Podesta served as President Clinton’s White House Chief of Staff and is President and CEO of the Center for American Progress.