Like Congress, state legislatures wrestle with lobbying reforms

Prompted by scandals in Washington and at home, state lawmakers introduced dozens of bills this year to limit the influence of lobbyists, who are a growing presence in state capitals.

Prompted by scandals in Washington and at home, state lawmakers introduced dozens of bills this year to limit the influence of lobbyists, who are a growing presence in state capitals.

But some reform-minded lawmakers, like their brethren in Congress, found it difficult to convince colleagues to back the most restrictive measures.

A particularly tough sell: bills that would lengthen the time before a legislator can become a lobbyist.

“I’m seeing very little action, which sort of parallels what happened in Congress,” said Robert Stern, who directs the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles.

“It is always difficult to pass reforms on yourself unless there is a lot of local pressure.”

There had been a lot of action at the start of the legislative season. Nearly 200 bills relating to gift bans, “revolving door” rules and other ethics reforms were written from Albany to Sacramento, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), which tracks state legislative efforts.

“I’ve never seen since I’ve been here the number of bills addressing lobbying that have been introduced,” said Peggy Kerns, who directs the ethics center at the NCSL.

The Jack Abramoff influence-peddling controversy in Washington “kind of shook states up a bit,” Kerns said.

Several states have toughened lobbying and ethics rules in recent months. Missouri lawmakers, for example, just passed new campaign-finance and lobbying rules. The measure prohibits lawmakers from traveling out of state on a lobbyist’s dime.

Missouri Senate Majority Floor Leader Charlie Shields (R) said the scandals in Washington “created an environment” to pass the local reforms.

Lawmakers in Tennessee and Florida adopted broad reforms last year in response to local examples of influence peddling. Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, is expected to sign a second major ethics bill in weeks. It includes a strengthened gift ban and new limits on the practice known as the revolving door, or how soon lawmakers can become lobbyists after they leave office.

But as often as not, lawmakers in states without local scandals found that the examples of Abramoff and ex-Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham (R-Calif.) hadn’t created a groundswell of support for ethics reforms.

Worried that “state legislatures get tarred with the same brush” being used to paint Congress as corrupt, Minnesota state Sen. Linda Higgins, a Democrat, co-wrote an ethics bill that would have prevented ex-members from lobbying former colleagues for two years and have imposed new financial disclosure requirements for lawmakers.

But reaction was mixed, particularly to the revolving-door effort. “A few colleagues have said, ‘Well, what do you think I’m going to do when I leave here?’” she said.

The bill passed a Senate committee but is not expected to get through the full Legislature.

Utah state Rep. Carol Moss (D) resented seeing a former member who had resigned his seat following accusations of spousal abuse back on state Capitol grounds as a lobbyist.

“That just irritated me to no end,” she said. “He was up here schmoozing all these lawmakers.” But her revolving-door bill, which would have prevented lawmakers from lobbying for one year, “never got out of the Rules Committee,” she said.

In New Jersey, state General Assemblyman Richard Merkt, a Republican, wanted to require lawmakers to wait for two years before lobbying. But his bill “didn’t go anywhere,” he said.

About half of the states have a “cooling off” period before a lawmaker can become a lobbyist. These bills “seem to be harder to get through a legislature,” said Kerns, of the NCSL.

Despite that, states already often operate under stricter ethics rules than Congress does, according to the Center for Public Integrity. For example, independent panels enforce ethics rules in 24 states. In Congress, Senate and House committees serve as enforcers.

The Center for Public Integrity has said that 47 states operate under tougher laws than the federal law.

Watchdog groups in Washington had high hopes that stories of political corruption would push lawmakers to impose tough new restrictions like lengthening revolving-door prohibitions, outlawing privately financed travel or establishing independent ethics review boards.

Lawmakers instead settled largely on new disclosure rules, choosing transparency over new limits. Chellie Pingree, president of Common Cause, called a recently passed lobbying reform bill in the House a “scam” and “a joke.” 

In some measure, reform efforts in Washington and in state capitals are being driven in response to a rapid growth in the lobbying industry. The growth of K Street is a well-known story. The Center for Public Integrity found state lobbying spending neared the $1 billion mark in 2004.

State legislatures set sales and property taxes, finance big-buck capital projects and fund the school systems. A bill to fund a new hospital in Minnesota attracted 54 lobbyists, Higgins said.

Several lawmakers said that they appreciated the function lobbyists fulfill, but that the growth in lobbying prompted them to tighten lobbying rules.

In Iowa, lobbyists can’t spend more than $3 a day on a lawmaker. But special-interest groups can still throw lavish receptions as long as all lawmakers are invited. Recent parties have cost as much as $10,000, according to state records.

State Sen. Herman Quirmbach, a Democrat, wanted to ban the practice, seeing a potential advantage that well-heeled interests could have over groups less well-off. “It’s not a level playing field,” he said.

To get support, Quirmbach included in his bill a new gift limit of $4, an adjustment for inflation.

“If pushed, I would have gone to $5,” he said. But his bill didn’t pass either body in the Legislature.

State Sen. David Lujan of Arizona, who said there is a “very strong lobbying influence” in his state, wanted to ban non-educational travel and tighten gift ban rules. But the bill “never got a hearing here,” Lujan said.

In states where reform bills passed, some good-government advocates said they didn’t go far enough.

In Missouri, some lawmakers were critical that the ethics measure eliminated campaign-contribution limits. The bill instead relies on disclosure rules to check abuse.

Georgia lawmakers also passed a raft of reforms that included new financial-disclosure requirements later praised by the Center for Public Integrity. Some local watchdog groups said the bill didn’t go far enough, however. 

“The bill fell short of what the governor had proposed,” said Bill Bozarth, the executive director of Georgia Common Cause.

Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican, had proposed gift-ban rules and expanding the power of the ethics panel to review potential conflict of interests among state legislators.

Bozarth credited the Legislature for adopting new rules but called a strengthened ethics panel the “most significant” reform Perdue had asked for.