Bill would create online lobbyist reports

‘You’d be able to follow the money easier,’ says Vancouver representative sponsoring the bill

The Columbian (Vancouver, Wash.)February 11, 2014 

After years of trying, state Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, hopes 2014 is the year his proposal to change the way lobbyists report their activities in Washington gets off the ground.

House Bill 1005 would require lobbyists to file reports electronically, making them searchable and sortable online through the state Public Disclosure Commission. The PDC keeps lobbyist reports now, but only through documents that are often questionable or incomplete. Finding out what – and whom – a lobbyist spends money on means navigating a complicated maze of thousands of names and reports.

Moeller’s bill would make that information more accessible to the public, he said.

“You’d be able to follow the money easier,” Moeller said.

HB 1005 was first introduced last year. Among its co-sponsors is Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver. It never got to a House floor vote in 2013. But Moeller said he’s been told by other House leaders that it may gain more traction this session.

That doesn’t mean the bill is without opposition.

“Quite honestly, you have 300 people up here who don’t like the bill – being lobbyists,” Moeller said.

That’s partly because the bill would create a new fee system, charging up to $200 annually to lobbyists, their employers and other entities to help fund the PDC. That money would help the agency set up and maintain the new filing system, according to the bill.

Electronic filing is already required for political candidates reporting campaign contributions and expenditures. All that data are kept in a searchable online database. The PDC also recently set up an electronic filing system for public-agency lobbying, said agency spokeswoman Lori Anderson.

The PDC does have an online database listing the names of lobbyists and their employers, and the total each spends in various categories. All that data are entered by PDC staff, Anderson said. But itemized spending amounts are not , she said.

An electronic filing system would include such expenditures, Anderson said. So rather than seeing that a company spent $10,000 to entertain lawmakers, for example, one could see a breakdown of who was entertained and how much was spent.

“The public has access to that information now, but must look at the reports filed by lobbyists to find it,” Anderson said. “It’s a very tedious process.”

The PDC has the basic framework in place to set up such a system, Anderson said. If legislation passed, the agency would likely do it with its own staff, she said. It’s likely the PDC will eventually do so with or without action from the Legislature, she said.

“There’s going to come a day where we’re going to refine our electronic filing application that we have for lobbyists, like we have for public agencies,” Anderson said.

But even if it’s there, the PDC doesn’t have the authority to force lobbyists to comply.

“For everyone to use it would require a legislative mandate,” Anderson said.

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