As spending on lobbying increases, transparency remains murky
FIRST IN A SERIES
SALEM Businesses, special interest groups and governments have increasingly invested in lobbying Oregon lawmakers and other state officials over the last nine years. And based on spending data from the state, those groups appear to have concluded lobbying is a good investment: reported annual spending on lobbying increased 15 percent from 2007 to 2015, when adjusted for inflation.
Yet despite the millions of dollars involved, its nearly impossible for Oregonians to get details on how lobbyists spend that money to achieve payoffs for their clients, because Oregon law allows lobbyists and their clients to disclose little information about how they influence state laws and spending.
The Pamplin Media Group/EO Media Group Capital Bureau categorized lobbying spending in Oregon by industry and sector using data from the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks spending on lobbying by industry at the federal level. In total, groups spent more than $251 million on lobbying during the past nine years, according to state data.
The health care sector whose ranks include nurses, pharmaceutical companies, hospitals and doctors reported spending the most on lobbying from 2007 through 2015, a total of $36.5 million. Next was the business sector, which spent $30.8 million, followed by finance, insurance and real estate interests that reported spending a total of $27.3 million on lobbying during the same period.
Restrictions on lobbying
Unlike several other states including Idaho, Oregon does not require lobbyists to disclose the specific bills or executive branch actions they seek to influence. Oregon lobbyists are only required to disclose food, drinks and entertainment purchased for a specific lawmaker or other state official if the cost exceeds $50 on a single occasion, and lobbyists do not have to report individual expenses reimbursed by their clients.
Until this year, the only way to know how much lobbyists and their clients were spending to entertain Oregon state officials was to request a copy of the paper reports filed with the Oregon Government Ethics Commission.
The agency launched a new electronic filing system for lobbyists late last year, but that system is not displaying certain spending details due to technical glitches. Even if the system were working correctly, however, it would likely provide only a small sample of lobbyists activities. Of the $35.9 million in reported spending last year, only $93,189 was explained in detailed reports.
These minimal reporting requirements contributed to Oregon receiving one of the lowest rankings in the nation for transparency in lobbying activity.
Last summer, the Sunlight Foundation evaluated how all 50 states track spending on lobbying and created a scorecard ranking the states. The foundation awarded Oregon an F grade, meaning lobbyists and their clients face fewer disclosure requirements than in most other states.
Most of Oregons neighbors received higher grades, from an A in California to a C in Idaho.
Emily Shaw, a senior analyst at the Sunlight Foundation who was involved in the project, said the goal was to evaluate how much information states collected about lobbyists specific activities and the costs of those actions.
People should be able to find out who has come to influence their laws, Shaw said. Thats not to say there needs to be any particular restriction on lobbying in a particular situation. But for good public awareness of whats happening in these processes, we need good information about what lobbyists are doing, and when.
Pete Quist, research director at the National Institute on Money in State Politics in Montana, agreed that it is important for states to require lobbyists to disclose more about how they influence lawmaking. The institute is collecting information about state-level spending on lobbying across the nation. The lobbying piece isnt analyzed as much in the media as it should be, Quist said. What we see a lot of public discussion about is the campaign contributions.
'So easily evaded'
Oregon lobbyists have resisted efforts to require them to disclose more details of their work, most recently in 2015 when they won passage of a bill that allows them to avoid reporting spending to lobby other lobbyists, for example to build a coalition for or against an issue. The 2015 bill which easily passed both chambers of the Legislature and was signed into law by Gov. Kate Brown extended the disclosure exemption through mid-2017.
Dan Meek, a public interest attorney and co-chair of the Independent Party of Oregon, said this exemption is a major reason the public cannot find out how lobbyists use much of the money their clients report spending. Still, Meek said he remains more concerned that Oregon has no campaign contribution limits because political donations do not have to be reported as gifts, even if they are connected to lobbying efforts.
Lobbying regulation in Oregon is really of secondary importance because it can be so easily evaded, Meek said.
The extension of the lobbying reporting exemption last year provided another example of how lobbyists avoid revealing their impact on Oregons laws.
Lobbyist Marla Rae, who served on the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission and worked for the Oregon Department of Justice and former Gov. Ted Kulongoski, advocated for the bill during legislative hearings on behalf of the Capitol Club of Oregon, a professional organizations for lobbyists. However, the Capitol Club did not report spending any money on lobbying last year and Rae does not appear to have registered to lobby on behalf of the group.
In an email, Rae explained that the Capitol Club did not have to report spending any money on lobbying because she volunteered her time to advocate for the bill. Rae wrote that she did not spend enough time working on the issue the threshold is 24 hours in a quarter to trigger the states requirement to register as a lobbyist for the group.
Bill Cross, the Legislative Committee chair for the Capitol Club, said the group still wants a permanent reporting exemption for lobbying other lobbyists, partly because it is burdensome for lobbyists to track the information.
Im sure well be pursuing some sort of way to adjust that because the value of that information just doesnt seem apparent to us, Cross said.
Cross said it would also create a lot of work for lobbyists with minimal benefit to the public if lobbyists were required to report all the bills or executive actions they work to influence, because he sometimes tracks hundreds of bills during a legislative session. At the moment, no one is advocating for expanded lobbying disclosures in Oregon, Cross said. Im not aware of any issues, I guess, that have evolved in the last four or five years where other organizations have said, Wait a minute, we really need to reform our lobbying disclosure laws because of problems with corruption or something, Cross said.