Lobbyists turn their attention to states

January 24, 2007|By Joel Barkin

Have you heard the one about the lobbyists who got shut out of Washington, D.C.? They all decided to set up shop in the states instead. Not laughing? That's because it's not a joke. It's how lobbyists are reacting to the Democratic takeover of Congress.

BusinessWeek is reporting that "business will focus more attention on ... state governments." That's not for a lack of focus now. Statehouse lobbying is a billion-dollar industry with more than 38,000 people registered to lobby legislators.

It's no surprise that statehouses are heavy targets for lobbying. State courts handle thousands of cases every year. Business is looking to states to continue efforts to limit what victims can recover in situations where businesses are liable for damages.

Plenty of other issues are set to hit the docket in state legislatures, and big business will have its interests to protect. Several years ago, Oregon implemented a cost-savings program on prescription drugs that steered more patients to quality generic drugs and lower prices. Pharmaceutical lobbyists persuaded the legislature to roll back the program. Profits were at stake.

Telecom companies are eager to expand into pay-per-view video services but do not want the public-interest regulations that the new Democratic Congress is sure to require. Instead, they are planning for a state-by-state fight, most likely costing millions of dollars in lobbying fees and campaign contributions.

The problem of lobbying influence in statehouses has grown to unprecedented levels. Former Gov. Bob Taft of Ohio recently pleaded guilty to failing to disclose gifts and trips paid for by lobbyists. Five current and former lawmakers in Tennessee were netted in a bribery sting.

And more and more elected officials are cashing in on their time in the statehouse to become lobbyists. In 2005, more than 1,300 former legislators were registered as lobbyists. In one of the most striking examples, both the former Democratic leader and the former Republican leader in the Georgia Senate went on to lobby for pharmaceutical companies after leaving office.

What can citizens do, and what steps should policymakers take to restore faith in our system of government? Fortunately, a few are leading the way. Across the country, reforms have been passed to increase disclosure, prohibit gifts from lobbyists and slow the revolving door between public service and private lobbying.

Unfortunately, these are only first steps.

In some cases, lobbyists plying legislators with campaign cash represent interests seeking to take over lucrative government contracts. In Ohio, attorneys who donated $1.8 million to successful candidates for attorney general since 1998 received more than $170 million in legal fees to serve as "special counsel" for the state. That's not a donation. That's an investment.

Maryland could prevent these shenanigans by prohibiting "pay-to-play" contracting and placing a ban on campaign contributions from companies seeking government contracts.

Leaders can take it a step further and give candidates a chance to run for office as "clean election" candidates. In Maine, Arizona and Connecticut, clean elections - where candidates who demonstrate broad public support receive public financing for their campaigns - have proved popular among citizens. This would be in stark contrast to former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who vetoed a bill to require that Wal-Mart offer decent health insurance to its employees while neglecting to mention that the company had held a fundraiser for him.

Let's hope that the change of faces in Annapolis will mean that lobbyists flocking from Washington are likely to find themselves facing state leaders who still know how to heed the better angels of their nature. But, as James Madison warned, if men were angels, government would not be necessary.

Keeping in mind that it is better to be safe than sorry, states should embrace another round of reform and go beyond simple disclosure rules to more systematic efforts that undercut lobbyists' power. Only then can citizens be assured that their governments still work for them.

Joel Barkin, a Columbia resident, is executive director of the Progressive States Network. His e-mail is jbarkin@progressivestates.org.

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