The federal lobbying scandal centered around Jack
Abramoff, who was recently sentenced to almost six years in prison for
bribery, is unfortunately mirrored by the flow of crooked money into our
statehouses as well. Recent examples are Governor
Bob Taft of Ohio, who pled guilty for not disclosing gifts and golf outings
paid for by lobbyists, and a Tennessee
investigation which led to the arrests of five current and former lawmakers
on charges of accepting bribes, conspiracy, and extortion.
Lobbying at our statehouses is a billion
dollar per year business. In 2004, nearly 47,000 separate groups
hired more than 38,000
lobbyists, for an average of five lobbyists and $130,000 in expenditures
per state legislator. Especially in states with few legislative staff,
this army of lobbyists often becomes the dominant source of policy information
and power -- greased with lobbyist-paid dinners, entertainment, and travel.
To give just one
example, the Center for Public Integrity has highlighted the pharmaceutical
industry's lobbying at the state level, a $44 million operation during 2003
and 2004. And they used the money to
shoot down a wide variety of state reform efforts trying to lower the cost of
prescription drugs for consumers. Dozens
of key lawmakers across the country were given tickets to sporting
events, invited to golf outings, or flown to resorts.
Many states have suffered from public officials being involved in
ethics scandals. While sometimes there is talk of reform and other
overtures, comprehensive reform is most often elusive. However, some
states have managed, either in response to one particularly egregious
event or a history of problems being overturned in a wave of
dissatisfaction, to truly make a fundamental change. This year
Connecticut once again moved forward with a multi-year ethics reform
initiative, and Louisiana enacted one of the most far-reaching ethics
overhauls any state has in generations.
At the core of many voters' frustrations with government is the sense
that, too often, politics is for sale. High-priced lobbyists offering
"gifts" to lawmakers swarm state legislatures; companies looking for
public contracts get too cozy with those handing out public money; and
corporate campaign contributions grease the wheels as public policy is
auctioned to the highest corporate bidder.