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January 08, 2007

Olympia Watch: The Long Tentacles of Lobbyists

An article in today's Seattle P.I. explains just how hard it is for elected officials to escape the tentacles of lobbyists who practically camp out in Olympia during the 3-month legislative session. The unrelenting arm-twisting that representatives endure from lobbyists prevents the voices of constituents from being heard. Millions of dollars are spent by special interest groups each year in a full-scale effort to control legislation. The proof of those efforts can usually be found in the amount of tax breaks industries receive. Citizens, on the other hand, can only try to influence their representatives the old-fashioned way -- with letters, emails, phone calls and the rare, but much-coveted, 30-minute meeting with a legislative aide.

Are you able to take a 3-month leave of absence from your job so that you can stalk your legislative representative? Can you afford to take your legislative reps out to dinner? To a Sonics game? Do you have the means to host a $250 per person fundraiser for that rep? Did your fifth grade civics teacher not clue you in that bribing or blackmailing your reps is part of the political process? Don't take it from me - here's what Washington State Representative Hans Dunshee has to say about it:

Dunshee agrees that the meals are not in themselves enough to change a lawmaker's mind, and even though he seldom eats out on some special interest's tab, he says there are many other ways lobbyists make sure he knows what their clients want.

"A good lobbyist will just camp outside my office when they've got a project (they want the state to build)," he said. "They'll check back every day, 'How are we doing? Are we in? Are we out?'"

It can take Dunshee a half-hour to walk up to his office from a committee hearing, which is in the same building, he said.

"I have to beat them off," he said.

This corruption of the political process is exactly why we need to institute public financing of campaigns. Dunshee's story perfectly illustrates what Representative Mark Miloscia acknowledged at the clean campaigns Town Hall event last Friday night, when he said "I feel my integrity is tested everyday".

Keep your eyes peeled for the ides of March. That's when we get the tally on which bills passed and which didn't. Savvy Capitol watchers will probably be able to predict the outcomes, just by paying attention to who gets their tentacles in the door.

Posted by shoephone on January 8, 2007 at 12:21 AM in Inside Baseball | Permalink

Comments

I'm not sure how public financing will change lobbyist behavior. I was recently in Arizona, a public financing state, at their capitol, and they have plenty of lobbyists engaged in the same practices.

In fact, many of the lobbyists in Olympia don't actually give money -- they are paid for by your tax dollars, or lobby for a non-profit, and are just as persistant. Tony Lee who lobbies for the Fremont Public Association, for example, is very good, and gets a lot done, and doesn't have a PAC.

SPeaking of which, the limits in Washington are so low ($700 per election) that it's hard to argue that you can buy off someone with such a small check. And, typically, someone from each side of an issue gives to a legislator.

Posted by: dan | Jan 8, 2007 8:05:23 AM

The whole point of public financing is NOT about changing the lobbyists behavior - it;s about changing the legislator's behavior.

I'm quoting directly from the P.I. article here:
-------------------------
He cited the Washington Restaurant Association's lobbying effort to repeal the tax on soda-pop syrup.
"The syrup tax was $7 million (in state revenue). Well, if you spend half a million on lobbyists, you're still making $6.5 million on the deal," Dunshee said.

And in case you are wondering, all that money talking makes it harder for John Q. Public to get a word in edgewise.
"There's so much white noise, you've got to have a voice to get through it," Dunshee said.
-----------------------------
Obviously, there's a reason that $42 million is being spent on lobbyists - because it works. You and I don't have the ability to sit outside a legislator's office every day for three months to harass them into voting us tax exemptions, but the lobbyists and their benefactors do. Dunshee said exactly that. And the millions of dollars in tax exemptions each year is millions of dollars that's not going into the general fund - money that's not available to fund education, health care, environmental protections, transportation needs, etc. etc. etc. Is govt. supposed to run on "champagne dreams"? No, it's run on revenues. Taxes = services and WA State has great need for fully funded services. At Friday's Clean Campaigns event the four WA State legislators on the panel spoke at length about the unfairness of the current system, their revulsion at the system, and their feelings of constantly being integrity-challenged by it. They said they can't get away from the lobbyists and that this is not what they bargained for when they ran for office.

Conversely, Ed Ableser, the Arizona State Senator, said that clean elections have completely changed the way he and other clean campaigners approach their legislative responsibilities. He gave the example of the colleagues who are still so beholden to and bribed by special interests that they have to jump up and leave the senate chamber every time their cell phones ring because they know it's the corporate thugs calling. Ebeleser, on the other hand, takes calls from constituents - people like you and me.

So, is the current system of corruption really made less corrupt with pin-prick regulations on capping contributions and meals and gifts at this amount or that amount? Not according to Ebleser and Maine Representative Linda Valentino. It comes down to much more than a specified amount for contributions - it's a matter of influence. Perceived influence. And perceived conflict of interest.

Public financing also gives political challengers a level playing field. We have lots of seats that go uncontested each election. Public financing is a challenge to entrenchment and incumbancy. In Maine's last state-wide election, 149 of the 151 seats were contested. I think that exemplifies the benefits of a truly democratic system, and the issue is all about who receives the benefits of a system: the million dollar lobbyists or the tax paying citizens?

These people work for us, and we are paying their salaries. I think, in that case, they ought to be working on our behalf.

Posted by: shoephone | Jan 8, 2007 12:55:03 PM

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