Dee Ann Divis: While Washington waffles, states tighten lobbying laws

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Business,Dee Ann Divis

Driven by Washington’s Jack Abramoff scandal and a host of local corruption cases, dozens of states have passed new lobbying laws in the last several years, an analysis of local news stories, regulatory language and watchdog reports found.

The amount spent on lobbying at the state level has been steadily increasing, according to figures compiled by the Center for Public Integrity.

"Lobbying in ‘05, at the state level, crossed the $1 billion mark," said Leah Rush, who tracks the issue for CPI.

A report by the group in March showed two dozen states had either strengthened their lobbying laws or moved to electronic disclosure systems since the spring of 2003. Some, like Florida, passed outright bans on gifts to lawmakers. Others expanded reporting and/or registration requirements, including making access to records over the Internet easier by shifting to electronic reporting. States also mandated limits on contributions to lawmakers and slowed the revolving door between the lobbying firms and the offices of executive branch officials and legislators.

All of these moves were in addition to the strong laws already in place in states such as Washington, Kentucky and South Carolina. Even Connecticut, already ranked by CPI one of the top four states in the country for its lobbying and disclosure laws, added more reporting requirements.

An analysis by The Examiner found at least three more states tightened lobbying restrictions since the CPI report was published. New Hampshire signed new registration and gift-giving rules into law, while Idaho tightened its reporting requirements, expanding rules on who had to register as a lobbyist. Alaskan voters passed a ballot measure at the end of August to have lobbyists register if they spent roughly a day — 10 hours — a month lobbying, and cut the amount of campaign contributions allowed from individuals and political action committees by half or more.

Four more states are still weighing new laws. Ohio, hit hard by both the Abramoff scandal and several other cases involving the governor and state officials, is considering changes as is Oklahoma. Activists in Colorado collected more than 100,000 signatures to put a measure banning lobbyists from giving gifts to lawmakers on the ballot this November. Montana voters are also voting on an initiative this fall to make state government officials wait two years before becoming lobbyists.

Though the states have been active, their federal representatives have been dragging their heels. Despite numerous proposals right after former super lobbyist Abramoff pleaded guilty to conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion charges, lawmakers on Capitol Hill have failed to move. With only weeks left before Congress leaves to fight for re-election, and vast swaths of next year’s budget still needing work, it is likely more states will sign lobbying reforms into law before federal legislators take up the issue.

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