Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Wyoming needs complete lobbyist reporting

Public deserves more information about influence

By Dan Neal

Politics and public policy-making often come down to money and who has it to spend on candidates or on lobbyists that can help a interest group get what it wants.

In Wyoming, candidates for public office must report the contributions they receive and the expenditures they make. But lobbyists don't have to report many of their expenditures nor details about their funding resources. With Wyoming's lax lobbyist disclosure law, it's as if lobbyists simply appear in the Capitol without anyone spending any money to get them there.

On May 12, the Equality State Policy Center asked the Joint Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions Committee to require professional lobbyists working in Wyoming as well as the companies and people who hire them to make public how much money they spend to influence state legislators and other policy-makers.

The request, by the way, implies no improper behavior. Lobbying done well with integrity fills a necessary role in a democracy.

Here’s the basic argument the ESPC made to the Joint Corporations Committee when it met earlier this month in Lander:

Why is reporting necessary?
  • It demonstrates the importance of the work the Legislature does. A full accounting of lobbyist spending will show the general public how invested various interests are in the decisions made by the Legislature.
  • Since individual state legislators do not have paid staff, lobbyists in Wyoming fulfill a particularly important role of providing citizen legislators with information. It is the presence of lobbyists that makes a difference. The public deserves to know what it takes to post a presence when the Legislature meets – in Cheyenne or during the interim.
  • It is an important part of bringing the process of making state policy fully into the sunshine. People deserve to know what the oil industry, the coal companies, the railroads, and nonprofit organizations spend to influence their representatives and government officials.
  • About 350 lobbyists registered in 2010. Existing law required only a very few to file reports, mostly to report receptions held for legislators. Many who file anyway report zero expenditures.

What is needed:
  • People paid to lobby, including attorneys, should be required to report what they were paid and they should report their expenses.
  • Employers of lobbyists should report how much they paid lobbyists and how much they spent on other activities intended to influence legislators, other officials, and the public to support or oppose legislation. (Current law requires reporting by the employers of lobbyists.)
  • The law should cover both legislative and administrative lobbying.
  • Lobbyists should file quarterly. (This provides a timely accounting.)
  • Lobbyists should list clients, and how much each pays.
  • They should list what bills and governmental actions were lobbied and for which client.
  • Lobbyist reports should be subject to some form of enforcement mechanism.

The ESPC asked the Joint Corporations Committee that the reporting ultimately be made available in a searchable database available electronically via the Secretary of State’s website.

The committee showed considerable interest in the idea. Several, including Co-Chairman Cale Case, R-SD25, Lander and Rep. Kermit Brown, R-HD14, Laramie, asked pointed questions about lobbying by public interests, such as the University of Wyoming and other agencies.

The ESPC supports broad disclosure by all interests lobbying the Legislature. Even if they’re simply providing information at a committee meeting, state agencies and other public agencies certainly could be directed to report the cost of doing so.

When Sen. Case asked if the committee should entertain a motion to draft a bill, Sen. Charles Scott, R-SD30, Casper, objected, noting that the topic was not “noticed” on the committee agenda.

Instead, Sen. John Hastert, D-SD-13, Green River, made a request for the Legislative Service Office to research lobbyist disclosure in neighboring states and tell the committee how Wyoming’s disclosure requirements compare.

The topic is likely to appear on the agenda of the joint committee’s Sept. 28 - 29 in Casper.

A side note: Sen. Scott expressed considerable interest in determining who supports the ESPC and similar groups, saying he finds it difficult to determine who exactly they represent. He indicated he prefers disclosure legislation that would enable him to know the names of individuals who contribute to the ESPC and similar groups.

The ESPC does not provide that information, though people who do contribute funds to the ESPC certainly can make their support public. Still, the U.S. Constitution protects the right of people to associate freely. The ESPC told the committee that the right to maintain the privacy of contributor and membership lists was affirmed in a 1958 U.S. Supreme Court case, State of Alabama v. the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

But what the ESPC is, certainly is not a secret. The ESPC told the committee that the organizations that belong to its coalition are listed on the internet, along with brief biographies of the ESPC board officers and ESPC staff.

Sen. Scott asked the Legislative Service Office to research the law regarding protection of membership lists.