Lobbyists Running Amok

March 23, 1994

Who runs the General Assembly? Sometimes it looks suspiciously like the lobbyists do. Nearly $14 million was spent influencing members of the state legislature last year, yet little of the money spent to woo lawmakers with gifts was reported. Now lobbyists seek to go a step further: they want to decide themselves what gifts to lawmakers they will disclose and which they keep secret.

What started out as a well-intended bill to close partially a glaring loophole in the lobbyist gift-disclosure law is now an attempt to give these "registered representatives" carte blanche in their gift-giving. Under the amended bill, a lobbyist could take a planeload of legislators to the Super Bowl and never report who went or how much was spent on each lawmaker. This is an appalling proposal, one that reflects badly on the legislature.

Right now, there is a $75 limit on gifts given to legislators: anything beyond that amount in an 18-month period must be reported, with the recipient identified. But lobbyists have discovered a way around this law: divide the value of a gift among all the lobbyist's clients. Thus, a lobbyist with 10 clients can treat a legislator to a $100 dinner, then apportion the bill among the clients. And since gifts under $15 don't have to be reported at all, the lobbyist is home free and clear.

In practice, influence-peddlers have made a sham of this disclosure law. Bruce Bereano, the highest-paid state lobbyist, spent $140,000 on meals, events and gifts for lawmakers last year. But by apportioning costs among his numerous clients, Mr. Bereano never once identified how much was spent lavishing gifts and meals on individual legislators. He's not alone in this practice.

The amended bill before the House today would eviscerate this already weak disclosure law. Lobbyists would determine on their own what to report and what to hide. Who amended this bill? It was the handiwork of a work group headed by the much-maligned Del. John S. Arnick, who in this case is the prime House defender of the state capital's lobbyists. Mr. Arnick took a reform bill and turned it into odious kowtowing to these well-heeled private advocates.

The integrity of the House is on the line. Delegates should give this amended bill a prompt burial and replace it with a true reform of the disclosure law, one that closes existing loopholes and forces lobbyists to tell the public which legislators got gifts from special interests. Casting a vote in favor of weaker disclosure laws won't look good on the campaign trail -- even if it wins some lawmakers brownie points with their favorite lobbyists.

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