Late last year, St. Louis Public Radio and NPR launched an interactive data project that lets Missouri voters see just how much money their state representative has accepted from lobbyists. It's an easy-to-navigate visual that gives people a sense of the kinds of relationships that have developed under their Capitol dome. A similar one-stop-shop of lobbying disclosure info wouldn't be possible in Idaho.
We know that registered lobbyists in Idaho have spent more than a $1 million over the last two years advocating for their clients’ policy desires at the state Legislature. Disclosure information shows that out of 422 lobbyists, the average spent in 2012 was $1,500. More than half of Idaho's registered lobbyists didn't spend anything that year. But it's not clear who is on the receiving end of those lobbying gifts.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Chris McDaniel spearheaded Missouri's data project and is the first to admit his state isn’t necessarily known for government transparency. But on the lobbying front, just about every dime is accounted for.
“Missouri is the only state that has unlimited lobbyist gifts and unlimited campaign contributions, so a lot of people deride Missouri as having the worst ethics laws in the country," McDaniel says. "And to hear that there is another state who wasn’t even living up to the transparency Missouri had, that was really surprising to me.”
Missouri’s state ethics commission collects the lobbying information. In the Show Me State, every lobbyist is required to disclose each gift they give to lawmakers, and to which lawmaker they’re giving things like basketball tickets, dinners, or even a cup of coffee.
McDaniel says it can be easy for lobbyists to skirt around the disclosure rules, but enough data is collected to show that a Kansas City Republican Senator accepted the most gifts from lobbyists in the last two years.
Lisa Rosenberg lobbies for government transparency with the Sunlight Foundation. She says Idaho’s lack of lobbying information is a problem.
“Knowing the targets of the lobbying efforts is as important as the clients and who is behind the lobbying effort,” Rosenberg says.
The Sunlight Foundation calls this ‘contact reporting,' and it's something Rosenberg says is missing from most states.
Idaho law requires lobbyists to disclose who they’re spending on only when the value of the gift is more than $105. And even with that glimmer of disclosure, it’s hard to find out which legislator accepted a gift above that $105 threshold because Idaho doesn’t have a searchable electronic database.
Instead, Idaho’s Secretary of State’s office posts scanned PDFs – that are often handwritten by lobbyists – on its website. That means anyone who wants to see which Idaho legislator was treated to a $105 steak dinner for example, must click through hundreds of scanned PDFs looking for that information.
“So, if it’s not really public, if it’s just hidden away in scanned documents, not easily useable– then the purpose, the entire purpose of disclosure laws is really undone,” says Rosenberg.
She says a searchable, sortable database of lobbying information should be a bare minimum for states. Still, Rosenberg estimates less than half of states have good electronic databases.
“There are thousands of pages a reporter, journalist or interest group would have to go through to make any sense and put any context on this lobbying information," says Rosenberg. "That should not be the job of journalists or reporters. That should be the job of the agency or organization that is in charge of making lobbying disclosures public.”
Idaho's Chief Deputy Secretary of State Tim Hurst has been with the agency for the last 11 years, not as long as the system of PDF disclosure forms. “Most people like the scanned PDFs," he says. "So, we haven’t really had requests to change the format.”
He says Idaho’s lobbying disclosure requirements haven’t changed significantly since it was adopted in 1974. In fact, Hurst says the push has been to lessen reporting by lobbyists.
“I think it’s primarily from the legislators and the lobbyists," he says. "The lobbyists don’t want to have to do that detailed of reporting. And the legislators may not want every cup of coffee that’s bought for them show up in the newspaper.”
Get a tour of the Secretary of State's lobbying disclosure system and see just what it takes to glean meaningful info. Credit: Emilie Ritter Saunders
Here’s the information most accessible in Idaho.
Lobbyists disclose how much they spend across five broad categories. Those include food and entertainment, living accommodations, advertising, travel, telephone, and other. They’re mostly self-explanatory until you get to that “other” category which can include anything from legal and consulting expenses, to holiday wreaths one lobbyist mails to legislators each year.
The Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, one of the state’s most prominent business lobbies, spent about $20,000 in the ‘other’ category during the 2013 legislative session. IACI lobbyist Alex LaBeau says that was mostly for legal fees.
“I’ve long advocated that everything should be immediate, 100 percent disclosed every time you spend a dime," says LaBeau. "Whether it’s taking somebody out to lunch or hiring a lawyer to help you do an analysis.”
LaBeau says he’s chided the secretary of state’s office for the last two decades over its disclosure system. But says they haven’t been in a hurry to overhaul the system because it isn’t the biggest part of what the agency does – elections are.
Wayne Hoffman is a registered lobbyist with the Idaho Freedom Foundation. He too wants more transparency in the system.
“If I can go back and say ‘OK over the last 10 years x-y-z insurance company has spent however much money on lobbying,’ I should be able to do that. I can’t do that under the current system,” Hoffman says.
Hoffman doesn’t have any problem disclosing who he spends money on, as long as lobbyists who advocate on behalf of state-run entities also submit that information.
Idaho’s lobbying disclosure law exempts all state and local government employees from reporting their advocacy activities. So for example, it’s not possible to find out how many Boise State basketball tickets are given to legislators while they’re in town for the annual session.
There’s also no ethics panel or auditing system in place to make sure what lobbyists do submit on their disclosure forms is accurate and above board.
Deputy Secretary of State Tim Hurst agrees Idaho’s lobbying data has its limitations.
"But if there was the interest of expanding those searchable fields, we’d be open to considering that," says Hurst. "We haven’t had the controversy, [or] the issues like some of the neighboring states, so we haven’t tightened it down as much as they have.”
Hurst says if the information available wasn’t sufficient, people would be asking for more. But it’s a double-edged sword. The lack of lobbying information available in Idaho means any potential controversy or wrongdoing is that much more difficult to find.
It may take a scandal to move Idaho’s lobbying disclosure system into the 21st century.
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