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June 4, 2013 at 6:05 AM
Washington lobbyists should do their part to embrace transparency, fund ethics database
If the state’s top 50 lobbyists can afford to spend $65,000 within four months on receptions and suppers meant to woo Washington’s part-time legislators, they certainly have a little money to spare to help the Public Disclosure Commission update its technology to make that information accessible to taxpayers. Don’t you think?
A recent analysis by the Associated Press, KUOW and KPLU showed lobbyists have paid for “hundreds and hundreds” of meals for lawmakers. The PDC does not have the resources to scrutinize those expense reports. In The Columbian’s version of the investigation, reporter Mike Baker writes, “The PDC, considered the state’s disclosure watchdog, hasn’t audited lobbyist filings in nearly a decade, not even doing spot checks to see whether lobbyists are reporting correctly. The Associated Press found cases in which lobbyists failed to properly complete basic forms, failed to disclose details of their expenses or regularly filed reports past their deadlines. Some lobbyists indicated they didn’t know the rules until reporters started asking questions.”
Lest they are too chummy with lobbyists to take meaningful action to reassure voters of their independence, elected officials should do themselves a favor and pass House Bill 1005 by State Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver. The bill worked its way through the committee process, but it remains stalled in the special session. Here’s what we wrote in our Dec. 27, 2012 editorial supporting the measure:
House Bill 1005 would charge lobbyists and political committees an annual fee to ensure citizens are kept abreast of who is trying to influence their lawmaker. It would also merge existing ethics boards with the Public Disclosure Commission, as well as expand the agency’s electronic filing process and help it create a searchable database that tracks lobbying activities.
That’s no small task. In 2012, total lobbying expenses in Washington reached $51.8 million. But to see how they used that money to entertain lawmakers and which interests they protected, citizens have to find and read through scanned reports that are often filled out in handwriting.
So far, State Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, assures us his influence can’t be bought with $49 dinners. (The Bellingham Herald’s political team has posted Ericksen’s response.) House Speaker Frank Chopp told Northwest News Network’s Austin Jenkins he always makes it a point to pay his own way. State Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, didn’t seem to realize he was the top Democratic recipient of lobbyist-funded meals until he was questioned by Baker. The lawmakers generally contend they attend receptions in Olympia where they may or may not eat.
OK. Whatever. Though the state encourages “infrequent” meals courtesy of lobbyists, it doesn’t appear to me lawmakers have broken any laws or acted egregiously (like, say, a committee of Texas lawmakers who felt it appropriate to run up a nearly $22,000 dinner tab paid for by lobbyists, according to this story).
Transparency will lessen the blow of these type of revelations in news reports. Doesn’t matter if we’re just talking about a couple hundred bucks or a couple thousand, public perception matters. I want to know which advocates are spending the big bucks, as well as who is not. Lawmakers — and lobbyists — have a chance to show they have nothing to hide during their interactions. I trust lobbyists can figure out how to itemize their expenses in a spreadsheet. Legislators can pass HB 1005 and make the PDC a stronger watchdog for open government.
As we noted in that December editorial, “The top 50 lobbyists in Washington state earned between $96,119 and $471,670 this year. These political players can afford a nominal fee. Voters are entitled to know how money influences politics.”