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Limiting lobbyists will hide influence

By Rick Thompson| published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution Opinion|
Saturday, January 14, 2012

Limits do not promote transparency.

It is that time of year again when organizations that seek media attention begin clamoring on an issue they are sure will get them some ink and air time. This year the issue some groups have chosen to champion seems to be limiting lobbyist expenditures. Being involved in politics and lobbying for the past two decades, mostly as a regulator, teaches that this issue comes up from time to time.

Though no one has ever been able to actually identify what benefit would come from limiting lobbyist expenditures, the standard answer I often hear is that capping lobbyist expenditures “will decrease the perception of influence.” This response has never really made much sense to me. Lobbyists are an important informational part of our legislative process. Limiting expenditures will not limit influence, it will only hide it.

A recent argument has been made that our neighboring states have lobbyist expenditure limits, thus for some reason this means Georgia should too. The Daily Beast in 2010 ranked the states by corruption using a decade’s worth of federal data submitted to the FBI by local law enforcement. Tennessee ranked No. 1 overall as the most corrupt state and No. 18 in public corruption, while Florida ranked 12th in public corruption. Both of these states have prohibitions on lobbyist expenditures. Georgia was ranked at the other end of the scale, in the bottom 25 percent in public corruption. This fact clearly indicates that limiting lobbyist expenditures does not decrease corruption.

In case the research and statistics are not compelling enough, limiting lobbyist expenditures will cause less transparency and likely lead to underground lobbyist spending. This is exactly what happened in other states that capped lobbyist expenditures, such as Tennessee and Florida. In 1995, the Tennessee Legislature passed a lobbying gift ban. Ten years later, in spite of the lobbying gift ban, three Democratic senators, one Republican representative, and eight other people pleaded guilty or were convicted in “Operation Tennessee Waltz,” a statewide bribery sting conducted in that state’s Capitol in 2005.

Because of the passage of a law two years ago to increase reporting requirements, state-level lobbyists in Georgia must report their expenditures every 15 days. If lobbyist expenditures were prohibited, there would be no need for reporting. Without reporting, the public is blindfolded as to which companies and special interests are lobbying which legislators. In essence, a large drape would cover the Capitol and almost no one would know who the lobbyists are lobbying behind that curtain. Lobbying should not be done in secret, which is exactly what expenditure caps would cause. Allowing underground lobbying is counterproductive, harmful to the process and destroys public transparency.

Rick Thompson is a former executive director of the State Ethics Commission who now does ethics and governmental compliance consulting.

Read it in the AJC

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