Lobbyists serve a valuable role in the legislative process, often providing needed expertise on complicated issues. But they shouldn’t have undue influence, particularly if it comes from wining and dining lawmakers.
The key to limiting and monitoring this influence is having effective disclosure requirements. Unfortunately, Kansas earned an “F” for lobbying disclosure in a recent national study of state ethics laws.
In fact, most of the money that lobbyists spend is not itemized, so the public has no idea which lawmakers were lobbied and on what issues.
An article in last Sunday’s Eagle reported that more than 74 percent of the $380,000 that lobbyists spent on lawmakers during the first three months of this year – or nearly $285,000 – was “unitemized” on disclosure reports. That means it can’t be linked to any particular lawmaker or event.
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State law doesn’t require lobbyists to itemize spending if all lawmakers are invited to a meal or gathering. And there’s some justification for that, as it can be impractical to keep track of all the lawmakers and staff who stopped by a large reception.
But the state should do more to increase transparency.
For example, it should require businesses and lobbyists to report how much they spend to bring in expert witnesses to testify at legislative hearings, or what they pay attorneys to write position papers. This is part of influencing legislation.
Businesses and other groups should also have to report how much they pay lobbyists – as Nebraska requires.
Lobbyists should be more specific in their reports about what bills they are lobbying for or against. Now they report only broad statements, such as “on behalf of teachers,” which doesn’t tell the public much. They should also disclose the specific date of their spending, rather than only the month that it occurred.
Lobbyists also sometimes list their own firms as clients when they take lawmakers out to lunch. Perhaps there are some situations when that’s appropriate, but it’s happening enough that it looks like they are trying to avoid disclosure.
Rather than working to increase transparency, the push in recent years has been to reduce disclosure requirements. For example, lobbyists have wanted to raise the dollar limits on gifts to lawmakers and exempt committees and delegations from itemized reporting.
Many lawmakers are offended at suggestions that all this spending may be influencing how they vote. And for many of them, it may not. However, businesses and other groups wouldn’t be spending big bucks if they didn’t think it had an impact. In fact, there are more than 500 registered lobbyists in Topeka – three for every lawmaker.
Such spending certainly seemed to pay off this session when lawmakers overwhelmingly approved a bill that eliminates some service requirements and consumer protections on phone companies. AT&T wrote the bill, and communications companies spent $33,000 feeding and entertaining legislators during the first three months of this year. A Republican brief about the bill noted how the companies worked together on it, so legislators wouldn’t have to “choose between friends.”
Lobbyists should be part of the legislative process. But if they and lawmakers have nothing to hide, then why hide it?
For the editorial board, Phillip Brownlee