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Change in lobbying laws has changed culture inside state capitols

by Laura Tomaka ~ October 2012 ~ Stateline Midwest »

This legislative session alone, more than 6,000 bills were introduced in the Illinois General Assembly, covering a long list of subjects that reflects not only the scope of state government, but the complexity of state lawmaking.
“No legislator can be versed in every single thing,” Illinois Republican Rep. Renee Kosel says. “There is no way that I can be an expert on roofing and dentistry and banking and real estate.”
For just about every subject area, a lobbyist is ready to provide Kosel and other lawmakers with information on the myriad bills that come before them.
“We live in an incredibly complex world,” says Brian Rude, a former Wisconsin senator who now lobbies on behalf of an electric cooperative. “And no legislator, no matter how bright or engaged, could begin to do a good job of representing his or her constituents without the information lobbyists provide.”
Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of lobbyists are registered in each of the 11 Midwestern states — from 369 in Nebraska to 2,412 in Illinois. Their presence inside state capitols is often a source of unease among the public and legislators themselves. But professor Alan Rosenthal says concerns about lobbyists having an undue influence on policy must be balanced with the useful role they have long played in American democracy — namely, representing interests and contributing to public debate and discourse.
“Organizing is a natural thing to do to make views known,” says Rosenthal, a professor of public policy at Rutgers University’s Eagleton Institute. “It’s not all going to be grassroots, mass-movement politics. [Professional lobbying] is a way to open up the system. Are there dangers? Yes. But there are always dangers in democracy.”
States, then, have sought to strike a middle ground: Accept lobbying as a part of the policymaking process, but regulate the activity to guard against some of those dangers.
Every state in the Midwest now requires lobbyists to register with the state. (All but Iowa, Michigan and Minnesota charge a registration fee.) In addition, state laws commonly require lobbyists to file disclosure reports and restrict them from giving gifts to legislators.
These state laws have changed the culture inside state capitols for the better, Rosenthal and Rude say, by making the legislator-lobbyist relationship less cozy and more professional.
In most Midwestern states, gift-giving is not completely banned, but it is limited to some set monetary value. And Rep. Kosel says such monetary restrictions should be enough.
“You have to know what’s best for the people,” she says. “And if you keep that in mind, there is no way a lobbyist is going to turn your mind around with a dinner.”
She would, however, like to see stronger disclosure laws in place in Illinois. Specifically, she wants to require contract lobbyists to report what they are being paid by their clients. Illinois is among the 17 U.S. states (Kansas, North Dakota, Ohio and South Dakota are the others in the Midwest) that do not have such a reporting requirement.
Public scrutiny of the lobbyist-legislator relationship is likely to continue, leading to new proposals that aim to improve transparency and state oversight.
But Rosenthal, a nationally recognized expert on state government, says there is one overlooked facet of this much-scrutinized relationship — lobbyists can only effectively advocate on behalf of their clients if they first gain the trust of legislators.
“They are honest because they have to be. … If they lose their reputation [among legislators], they are done,” he says.

Capital Closeup is an ongoing series of articles done by CSG Midwest highlighting institutional issues in state government and legislatures. Past articles are available here »