Amid Scandals, States Overhaul Lobbying Laws
By JOHN M. BRODER
Published: January 24, 2006
Stung by their own scandals, lawmakers in many states have outpaced Washington in enacting new laws intended to curb the cozy and at times corrupt relationships between lobbyists and politicians.
Measures are under consideration in state legislatures from New England to California, designed to eliminate privately financed junkets, require the disclosure of spending on lobbying, ban gift-giving by private interests and curb the hiring of lawmakers' relatives as an under-the-table kickback scheme.
Tennessee lawmakers, still reeling from an F.B.I. investigation that snared four of them with bribery and corruption charges last year, are in special session to consider tough new restrictions on lobbying and campaign finance.
State officials and lawmakers in Georgia began operating this month under new ethics guidelines signed into law last year by Gov. Sonny Perdue. The governor, a Republican, said the measures were needed because of the relationship between lobbyists and lawmakers that had developed over 130 years of Democratic control of the statehouse.
In Florida, there are new laws banning gifts from lobbyists and requiring extensive reports on lobbyists' spending, rules the Legislature enacted after revelations that three lawmakers flew to a golf outing on a corporate jet owned by a company seeking slot machine licenses.
"Unfortunately, it takes scandal to get reform," said Robert M. Stern, who directs the nonpartisan Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles. "People don't want to change. It's human nature, particularly if they're being asked to change themselves."
The Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan group in Washington that studies ethics in politics, said rules for federal lobbyists were weaker than those in all but a handful of states. For example, 37 states require some detailed information on each lobbyist's expenses, while the federal government does not. More important, the center said, 24 states have independent ethics commissions, some including members of the public or retired judges, to investigate and enforce lobbying rules. Congress writes and enforces its own code of conduct.
While much of the recent focus has been on Washington, which is embroiled in one of the biggest lobbying scandals in years, lobbying is a huge business in state capitals, where multimillion-dollar decisions are made every day on issues like drug prices, utility regulation and road-building contracts. Lobbyists and their allied interests spent nearly $1 billion in 2004 in the 42 states that required detailed reporting, according to figures compiled by the Center for Public Integrity, which has been examining such spending at the state level for the past eight years.
California and Washington have been among the nation's trailblazers in the disclosure and monitoring of lobbyists' activities. Their ethics laws, which date from the mid-1970's, were created through citizen initiatives placed on the ballot, not by the action of the legislatures. But most often, it is scandal that has stirred lawmakers into action.
"States are doing this for two reasons," said Peggy Kerns, director of the ethics center at the National Conference of State Legislatures. "They want to be ethical institutions, and they want the skeptical public to view them as ethical institutions."
That seems to be the case in Tennessee, where Gov. Phil Bredesen, a first-term Democrat seeking re-election this year, convened a special session to address what he called a culture of corruption in Nashville. Mr. Bredesen is asking for a ban on most gifts by lobbyists to government employees and elected officials, disclosure of spending by lobbyists, new limits on cash campaign contributions and the creation of an independent ethics commission with broad enforcement power. The package is similar to what many are calling for in Washington in reaction to the Jack Abramoff scandal.
"What's happening in Washington is adding momentum to what we're trying to do here," Mr. Bredesen said. "I'm telling the Legislature this is going to be front-page news for a year, so let's get out in front of the curve and be actively addressing these issues."
Even in states where strict ethics rules are in place, the laws of human nature have not been repealed, and temptation and corruption still exist. But bans on gifts from lobbyists and full disclosure of spending put many states light years ahead of Washington, said Jon Goldin-Dubois, a vice president of Common Cause, a group that advocates government openness and campaign finance reform.
The local efforts have made a difference, Mr. Goldin-Dubois said, "in the states that have aggressive ethics laws; truly independent commissions that have the powers they need to investigate, subpoena and set penalties; in states with strict reporting requirements; in states where they have banned gifts and travel."
He added, "We need to see the federal government take on some of these strong provisions to eliminate what we now know is not only the appearance of corruption but the reality of corruption."
The rush to reform at the state level is bipartisan, with some members of both the Republican and Democratic Parties concerned about corruption or any perception of it.
Last year Florida enacted one of the strictest set of lobbying rules in the country, including an outright ban on gifts and travel from lobbyists or their employers and a new system of reporting lobbying expenditures. Part of the impetus was the publicity surrounding the golfing trip by the three lawmakers. Money for the trip - which was ultimately ruled legal by the Florida Senate counsel - was funneled through the state's Republican Party to avoid disclosure laws, according to state officials.
Tom Lee, the Republican who is president of the Florida Senate, pushed the reform package through last year with the help of Gov. Jeb Bush, also a Republican. Mr. Lee said his decade in state government taught him that lobbyists often wielded more power than elected officials because they had access to unlimited money and had greater knowledge on matters of public policy than most public officials. That, he said, and the naked greed of some lawmakers.
"It became clear to me just how intertwined the special interests are in the maintenance of elected officials' lifestyles," Mr. Lee said.
In most capitals, lobbyists outnumber lawmakers by an average of five to one, the Center for Public Integrity found. Albany leads the nation, with 3,842 registered lobbyists, or 18 for every elected legislator. In Colorado, Florida, Illinois and Ohio, there are at least 10 lobbyists for each lawmaker. In only two states, Maine and New Hampshire, are there more elected officials than lobbyists.
Lobbying is an old, legal and often useful profession, particularly in the many state capitals where legislators are part-timers whose tenure is restricted by term limits and where permanent professional legislative staffs are small. Under such circumstances, lobbyists can provide historical information and context in policy debates.
Paul A. Miller, president of the American League of Lobbyists, said he was tired of the attacks on his profession, which he considers honorable.
"We all have our bad apples, and Jack Abramoff is ours," Mr. Miller said. "But it takes two to dance. He didn't put a gun to anybody's head and say you have to take a ticket or a meal or a contribution. You can't just point the finger at us."
Mr. Miller said his association was open to changes in lobbying rules at the state or federal level, particularly those that would strengthen the enforcement of existing regulations. "Unless you deal with that," he said, "everything else is meaningless."
In New York and New Jersey, officials are taking steps to revamp relatively weak ethics laws, which have allowed periodic lobbying, campaign finance and contracting scandals. Jon Corzine, the new Democratic governor of New Jersey, highlighted ethics reform in his inaugural address last week, saying the state government had lost the public's confidence. His first executive order required 625 members of state boards and commissions to file financial disclosure forms.
Mr. Corzine also promised to work to create an elected post of state comptroller to enforce public ethics laws.
New York, in an effort to curb the power of Albany's influential lobbying corps, is taking modest steps toward requiring more reporting of lobbyists' activities. An opinion by the state's Lobbying Commission last year interpreted the existing $75 limit on gifts from lobbyists to lawmakers to apply to an entire year's spending, not per meal or per ballgame.
The state also closed a loophole that exempted lobbyists seeking state contracts - rather than legislation - from registering with the commission. But the new rule is not yet being enforced, and it is not clear when it will be.
Some state officials are not waiting for scandal before proposing stricter rules on lobbying in their state capitals. Gov. Brian Schweitzer of Montana, a Democrat, said that in 2005, his first year in office, nearly every bill he supported was approved. "But I didn't get to first base with lobbyist reform," he said. "I asked them to close the revolving door, put cement in it and bolt it tight. I got nowhere."
Montana does not have a "cooling off" period before a legislator or government official can become a lobbyist, as the federal government and 22 states do. Mr. Schweitzer, pointing out that the former director of the state's Natural Resources and Conservation Department now works as a coal lobbyist and the chief of staff for a former governor now lobbies for the State Chamber of Commerce, is seeking a two-year ban on lobbying one's former colleagues. He also wants lobbyists to report every expenditure on a public official, "right down to a cup of coffee."
Mr. Schweitzer said he had no hope that the legislature would pass the measures, so he was planning to put them on the November ballot.
"I'm not following any scandal," he said. "I'm attempting to head it off at the pass because I don't like the smell of it."