TOPEKA — Free KU basketball games, NASCAR races and Disney on Ice.
Countless meals, a few rounds of golf and the occasional cigar.
Those are a few of top perks given to state lawmakers this year by lobbyists who represent corporations, local governments and universities, and an array of special interest groups.
Lobbyists’ spending has outpaced inflation and has grown in all but two years since 2002 , resulting in a 197 percent climb in less than a decade. Last year’s reports reflected a fierce advertising blitz related to a proposed tax on soda and other sugary drinks, which pushed lobbying spending to a record $1.4 million, according to Kansas Ethics Commission records.
Whether 2011 becomes another record breaker won’t be known until mid-January. At the end of August, lobbyists had reported spending $648,306, most of it during the legislative session. That’s far below the roughly $1.3 million total at the end of August last year.
Despite the growth in spending over the years, lobbying in Kansas is tame compared to some other states. Kansas allows lawmakers to accept as much food and drink as they please. But they’re prohibited from accepting gifts worth more than $40 or entertainment worth more than $100 from any one entity each year.
For example, some lawmakers will get a bill for $25 of the $125 ticket they were given to hear former President George W. Bush speak at the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce annual meeting in November, according to chamber lobbyist Jason Watkins.
Watkins, who was among top recipients of lobbying when he was a state representative, said Kansas law is relatively restrictive and that he never felt any pressure when lobbyists picked up lunch or dinner tabs.
Some states have caps more than twice as high, while others don’t allow lawmakers to accept even a cup of coffee from a lobbyist.
“It’s almost become an American sport to say bad things about politicians,” Watkins said. “Some of that may be deserved. But most of it is at the federal level.”
But Kansas was recently identified as one of the least transparent states by the National Institute on Money in State Politics, based on the amount of information it requires lobbyists to submit.
People who spend more than $100 a year must register as lobbyists with the Kansas Ethics Commission and must report any spending of $2 or more on lobbying.
Kansas law does not require lobbyists to report which legislation they’re lobbying for or against, making it impossible to know from public records how much was spent lobbying for or against a particular bill or issue.
The state doesn’t track lobbyists’ salaries, administrative expenses, travel costs or the money spent bringing someone to the Capitol to testify on a bill or help draft legislation.
Denise Roth Barber, managing director of the institute, said the public may not need to know how much an individual lobbyist earns, but knowing the total amount a company is spending to advance its interests in the Statehouse is important.
“If you don’t have that expenditure, you’re missing probably a big piece of the pie,” she said.
State officials can audit lobbyists and review receipts. But it would be hard for the state to catch a lobbyist offering perks in return for a favorable vote, said Carol Williams, executive director of the Kansas Ethics Commission.
“There are some things that just aren’t going to be reported to us,” she said.
With all the opposing views, lobbyists and lawmakers police themselves to an extent, she said.
Williams said lobbyists sometimes fail to file reports on time, but there aren’t any recent cases of lawmakers intentionally accepting gifts or entertainment in excess of the limits.
“I think legislators are happy with the law and I think lobbyists are happy with the law,” she said.
But she said the agency would like to see lobbyists report the legislation they are advocating or opposing.
Sen. Terry Bruce, R-Hutchinson, leads the pack in perks from lobbyists so far this year with more than $2,400 worth of meals and entertainment.
According to the Ethics Commission, Bruce received $2,199 worth of meals and beverages ranging from 26 cents to $100. The Kansas Chamber of Commerce fed Bruce the most — $340 worth.
Bruce said part of the reason he is atop the list is because he met several times with lobbyists with the National Rifle Association regarding a bill he carried that sought to allow hunters to carry concealed weapons while hunting. He said he also had multiple meetings over meals with several chambers of commerce regarding SB 1, which sought to phase down the state income tax.
“More than the laws, I think there’s a culture in the Kansas Legislature that makes people a little more apprehensive toward lobbying efforts, and legislators are fairly up and up here,” he said. “You don’t have the big (lobbying) scandals you see in many other states.”
Lobbyists play a key role in providing information and testimony that help shape lawmakers’ decisions, and it is a constitutionally protected activity, Bruce said.
He said there’s always some pressure to vote one way or another on a bill – particularly telecom and farm bills. But in the end, Bruce said, he makes up his own mind.
“If you can’t eat their food and tell them to their face ‘no,’ you shouldn’t be up in Topeka,” he said.
House Speaker Mike O’Neil, R-Hutchinson, and Sen. Ray Merrick, R-Stillwell, round out the top three. Fourth on the list is Rep. Brenda Landwehr, R-Wichita, who received more from lobbyists than any other Wichita-area lawmaker so far this year with $2,016 worth of meals and gifts.
She characterized that as relatively low considering it includes eight months, January through August. She said she rarely leaves the Capitol for lunch during the legislative session and that lobbyists often stop by with food to chat about issues.
“A lot of times it’s just general,” she said. “Maybe talking about the direction you’re going on an issue.”
During the rush of the session, it’s difficult to get a group of lawmakers together during the day because of their committee assignments and other meetings. So many lobbyists try to reach groups – or the entire House or Senate – with dinners and banquets.
Landwehr said she thinks it’s disingenuous for some lawmakers to say they don’t accept things from lobbyists but then show up at chamber dinners and other receptions where they get free food and drinks.
She said lobbyists are mostly trying to provide information and educate. She doesn’t turn people away just because she’s unlikely to support their position.
“Whether you oppose, support or are on the fence on an issue, you need to listen to all sides,” she said. “But if you think because you bought me a meal you’re going to get something, think twice.”
Rep. Mike Kiegerl, R-Olathe, has accepted only $107 in lobbyist spending so far this year. He said he accepts banquet meals. But when a lobbyist takes him out for a one-on-one meeting, he insists that they each buy their own meal.
He said state spending limits make it unlikely a lobbyist could buy a vote and that he doesn’t mind that other lawmakers accept more than he does.
“I’ve met a lot of the lobbyists," Kiegerl said. "They’re all fine people, mostly attorneys and people who know their way around. And I use them. I have no problem talking to them. I get both sides of the story. But, obviously, they’re telling their version of what’s going on.”
The Kansas Bankers Association has outspent other entities so far this year, followed by AT&T Inc. and affiliates and the Kansas Contractors Association.
A wide variety of businesses, nonprofits and government entities lobby lawmakers. For example, the city of Wichita has spent $666 so far this year while Americans for Prosperity, a nonprofit founded in the free-market economic theories promoted by Koch Industries owners Charles and David Koch, has spent $4,202, and the Wind Coalition, a nonprofit promoter of wind energy, has spent $1,421.
Doug Wareham, lobbyist for the Kansas Bankers Association, has the highest running total for spending on lawmakers from January to August.
Wareham spent $16,353 during the first third of the year. Outside of a round of golf with Sen. Pete Brungardt, R-Salina, all of Wareham’s spending was on food and beverages. But a steak dinner isn’t very persuasive, he said.
“I’ve had plenty of them vote against me the next day,” he said.