How many lobbyists does it take to pass a gambling law? In Pennsylvania, there’s no way to really tell, because they can’t be fully counted. Pennsylvania has no law requiring registration of lobbyists dealing with state legislators, unlike the other states. Under a Pennsylvania Senate rule, lobbyists and companies dealing with the Pennsylvania Senate are required to register with the state Senate, while lobbyists dealing only with the Pennsylvania House of Representatives and the Governor’s office are not required to register. But a bill working its way through the state Congress could bring registration and disclosure to the $200 million a year Pennsylvania lobbying industry.
If made law, Senate Bill 1 would require all lobbyists to register and report their expenses with the state. Introduced by state Sen. Robert Jubelier (R-Altoona) at the start of the 2005-2006 legislative session, S.B.1, known as the Lobbying Accountability Act, has passed the Senate and is awaiting action in the state House of Representatives.
Leave the office equipment
Some say this first bill of the session is last on the list of the state House’s priorities. Others say it’s not on the list. Judging from the response of Rep. John Perzel (R- Philadelphia), speaker of the state House, he isn’t losing sleep over the bill, as he might have over the pay raise issue.
“You need to see if the support is there among the members [of the General Assembly],” says Beth Williams, Perzel’s press secretary. “When the members talk to their constituents, the question of lobbyist disclosure doesn’t come up.” State representatives are required to fill out annual ethics forms with the state Ethics Commission, adds Williams.
Voters don’t think they have to tell their legislators not to steal the computers from their offices, and similarly, voters don’t think of calling for ethical behavior or lobbyist disclosure laws, says Barry Kauffman, executive director of Harrisburg-based Common Cause of Pennsylvania. “Every other state has requirements for lobbyists to report how much they’re spending, and what they’re trying to influence. This is the most basic of good government regulation,” he says.
Perhaps the issue isn’t being addressed because voters have been fixated on the legislative pay raise. Or maybe most people don’t know how the lobbyist side of government works. Many voters have no idea how much lobbyist money is being spent to influence their own state legislators.
We’ve all heard of how lobbyists wine and dine legislators, and give them free tickets to sporting events or for vacations. If you don’t think about it much, such relationships don’t seem to be a big thing. In fact, the amount of money involved in lobbying in Pennsylvania makes the legislative pay raise look like chump change.
Lobbyists working with the Pennsylvania Senate reported spending $200 million in 2003-2004 (the most recent figures available), according to state Senate figures provided by Jubelier’s counsel, Drew Crompton, who wrote S.B.1.
It is unclear how much lobbying money is being spent to influence members of the state House and the Rendell administration.
Pennsylvania’s disclosure rule requires disclosure to the state Senate, and the restriction is a rule, not a law. The rule allows lobbyists, at their own discretion, to list all of the money they spend on all efforts to influence legislators, not just state Senate lobbying.
The $200 million figure cited here covers the gamut of expenses of the registered lobbyists, including direct communication, indirect communication, and personal/office expenses.
Personal/office expenses include all salaries and any expenses associated with running the lobbying business. Direct communication includes costs associated with letters or conversations with members of the state Senate. Indirect communication includes direct mailings to legislators that are meant to affect legislation. Indirect communication also could be a billboard urging people to call their legislators to vote a certain way on a particular bill.
State House majority leader Sam Smith (R-Punxsutawney) seems to be using discretion to avoid addressing the lobbyist issue. Smith’s press secretary, Steve Miskin, said legislators aren’t concentrating on S.B.1. “There’s not a consensus of what to do. Right now our focus is on property tax relief,” Miskin says.
Pennsylvania legislators found consensus to vote for a raise, and they found it to repeal the raise. But they are too busy, or they simply can’t find a consensus to pass a law that would publicly disclose who is buying them dinner, getting them tickets, or tugging their ears about legislation.
In plain language
State senator John Pippy (R-Moon), a co-sponsor of S.B.1, says the bill is about public trust. “People need to know what issues are being lobbied, and what organizations are lobbying. It comes down to the transparency issue. This is a mechanism for [government] accountability,” Pippy says.
Other state legislators don’t think that voters are interested in knowing who is lobbying them. State House minority leader William DeWeese (D-Waynesburg) commented on S.B.1 through his press secretary, Tom Andrews. He says legislators have been working on other issues, such as Act 72 and increasing the minimum wage. “Senate Bill 1 doesn’t appear to be one of the top issues of concern in Harrisburg,” Andrews says.
Perhaps lobbyist registration should be the top issue, given the cash involved in this side of government.
“For us, lobbyist disclosure is a pressing issue,” Crompton says. “A strong disclosure bill is the way to show the public what is spent on state government.”
The wording of S.B.1 explains why citizens should know who is trying to influence their legislators:
“The Constitution of Pennsylvania recognizes that all free governments are founded upon the authority of the people…The Constitution also guarantees the people the right to petition those invested with the powers of government for redress of grievances. The ability of the people to exercise their fundamental authority and to have confidence in the integrity of the processes by which laws are made and enforced in this Commonwealth demands that the identity and scope of activity of those who are paid to influence the actions of the General Assembly and the Executive Department be publicly and regularly disclosed.”
In other words, the people can’t have authority over their representatives when they don’t know with whom those legislators are meeting. Lobbyist disclosure laws allow citizens to see the devil in the machine of state government, something that most voters don’t often think about.
So few lunch hours
Pennsylvania has 579 senate-registered lobbyists who work for 1,111 employers, including construction and engineering firms, hospitals, insurance companies, universities, other branches of government and many other groups, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity. Pennsylvania is ranked last on a state-by-state comparison list of lobbyist regulations compiled by the watchdog nonprofit. It’s clear that a lot of money is being spent on lobbying in Pennsylvania, but what do lobbyists really do?
Some companies hire a lobbyist to deal with problems they are having with an agency or individual in the government, one industry insider said. In such a scenario, a lobbyist works as a liaison between company and government officials. Lobbyists often keep tabs on legislation affecting a company; keep an eye on upcoming capital projects on which a company might bid; and keep tabs on legislation that could affect the company’s industry. Lobbyists also help to research and write legislation that later is voted on by legislators.
Larger companies might hire more than a dozen lobbyists, while smaller companies use lobbyists-for-hire, who bill hourly to work on the company’s behalf. In Pennsylvania, pretty much anyone can be a lobbyist, though most lobbyists have backgrounds in government and have worked in local politics and state government.
Some are scrutinizing gambling interests because of the legalization of slots machines here. But the $1.16 million spent by lobbyists dealing with the Pennsylvania Senate from 2003-2004 on behalf of gambling interests is a fraction of the amount spent by construction/manufacturing lobbyists, who spent $4.52 million on lobbying efforts during that period. Those amounts are dwarfed by the $9.2 million spent during that period by lobbyists representing the health care industry.
Now you know one of the reasons why your health care premiums continue to increase.
Stakeholders in the game
The public’s lack of awareness of the scope of lobbying in Pennsylvania is enabling special interests to have their way with legislators, critics say. Whether they are representing gaming, insurance, education, or health care companies, lobbyists in the Keystone State are spending a lot of time beating legislators’ ears. S.B.1, if approved by legislators, would allow voters to know exactly who was spending what time with whom.
“This law helps people understand who the big players are,” says Kaufman. “It’s just basic openness. If you don’t know what’s going on [in state government], you can’t defend your interests.”
In 2003-2004, lobbyists in Pennsylvania were representing at least 14 different companies that may have an interest in gambling, including Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts, which has one lobbyist working on its behalf; Ameristar, which has three lobbyists registered; and Harrah’s Entertainment, Inc., and Harrah’s Operating Co., which have 19 lobbyists, and one lobbyist, respectively. Other gaming interests with lobbyists in Pennsylvania include WMS Gaming, with six lobbyists; Sands Pa., Inc., and The Venetian Resort Hotel (both now under the Sands name, with 13 lobbyists in total); Oberthur Gaming Technologies, a Canadian lottery ticket company with seven lobbyists; and Isle of Capri Casinos, Inc., which has six lobbyists. Twelve lobbyists in Pennsylvania represent Forest City Development, which hopes to build a casino in the South Side of Pittsburgh. MTR Gaming, which also wants to build a casino in western Pennsylvania, employs 19 lobbyists to deal with the state Senate. The Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team, which would like to re-establish itself as a sports-gaming company by owning and operating a Pittsburgh-area casino, employs ten lobbyists.
Mohegan Tribal Gaming Authority, which wants to build a casino in the Hays section of Pittsburgh, has five lobbyists. Philadelphia Park Racetrack, which is vying for a Philadelphia-area slots license, has seven lobbyists. Boyd Gaming Corporation, a Las Vegas-based company that owns casinos, employs 17 lobbyists dealing with the Pennsylvania Senate.
Apparently you need at least 126 lobbyists to pass a gambling bill in Pennsylvania. It’s impossible to know if that figure is right, since it is impossible to determine exactly what lobbyists have worked to influence politicians in the state House and the Rendell administration. Many Pennsylvanians would raise an eyebrow if they were told that 126 people were lobbying state legislators on behalf of gambling interests prior to the approval of a law legalizing slots machines in the state.
Just free speech
Most members of the lobbyist industry in Pennsylvania would likely say lobbying is above board. Some say they are simply working within the bounds of the representative democracy of our country. Brian Barno, president of the Pennsylvania Association for Government Relations, a Harrisburg-based lobbyist industry organization, noted that more than 2,000 bills have been introduced in the 2005-2006 legislative session. “For a legislator to be an expert on all of those issues is impossible. Part of the legislative research process is reaching out to the individuals and organizations directly impacted by the legislation,” Barno says.
PAGR has long been in favor of lobbyist disclosure laws. The organization would prefer that S.B.1 had a campaign finance reform clause, Barno said. “I think there’s a need for people to look at how the process works. Lobbying is an integral part of the process. We provide information on specific issues for the legislators and help the legislative process,” he said.
If such interpersonal relationships are to be allowed, citizens need to be able to scrutinize these relationships, good government advocates say. The question of lobbying in state government comes down to the issues of openness and fairness, says Leah Rush, director of state projects for the Center for Public Integrity. Lobbyists have much greater access to legislators than the average citizen, she notes.
“In a way, lobbyists are un-elected officials; writing legislation, and working as legislative research assistants. We often call them the Fourth Branch, because they are such a big part of the process,” Rush says.
She says she is shocked that S.B.1 hasn’t received more attention from the media, since Pennsylvania is last in lobbying disclosure laws. She notes that the state Senate was less than forthcoming in releasing documents to her group, requiring one of their employees to physically go to Harrisburg to get the lobbyist disclosure documents.
Telling, isn't it? Of course state legislators don't want the gravy train to end. But their protection of a broken lobbyist system is indefensible. Perhaps the only way to get politicians to realize the system is broken is to muster the sort of outrage that people voiced about the legislative pay raise.
"Everyone should be really ticked off that lobbyists are getting paid to monopolize their legislators' time," Rush says. "Citizens are the employer of the legislators."