Politics blog

PDC disclosure bill for lobbyists’ freebies gets ‘lost in the shuffle’

OlympianMarch 11, 2014 

STAFF — The Olympian/News Tribune

A bill that would have required lobbyists to file spending reports electronically at the state Public Disclosure Commission has appeared to die in the Republican-steered Senate.

A stripped down version of Democratic Rep. Jim Moeller’s perennial bill had passed the House on a 97-to-0 vote on Feb. 17, after a lobbyist registration fee was taken out by fellow Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee. Moeller said the thinking was “it would sail out of the House easier, which it did.’’

Indeed, House Bill 1005 appeared on its way to passage in the Senate where it had support from leadership. Republican Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville had said since late last summer that he favored greater disclosure of lobbyists’ spending.

Schoesler’s support was particularly noteworthy because members of his own caucus were shown by a news analysis last year to be the top recipients of free meals paid by interest groups.

But the measure failed to move out of Senate Ways and Means last Friday, the deadline for policy bills. Without the lobbyist registration fee, the measure now is dead – and can’t get second life as a measure “necessary to implement the budget’’ unless lawmakers pulled a lot of strings to get around their own rules.

Asked what happened to kill the bill, Schoesler said Tuesday: “It just got lost in the shuffle. I’m not sure. … I think we’re focused on budgets and other things that are good.” 

“It’s a shame,” Public Disclosure Commission spokeswoman Lori Anderson said. “It’s something the commission has championed for a long time and people have worked [for years] to get a system in place. … [T]here was a little momentum this year … it kind of stopped short at the end. It’s disappointing.’’

Electronic filing of reports has been mandatory for candidates for public office since 2002, and that became an option for lobbyists the same year. Anderson said that to lobbyists’ credit, more than half of the 951 registered lobbyist employers and individual lobbyists do file electronically.

But the reports are not in a format that lets data on spending be searched easily for details. It took reporters from two news organizations three weeks last year to compile their report about which lawmakers lobbyists were buying meals for.

Five singled-out lawmakers had accepted between 40 and 75 freebies each through June last year with a cash value of more than $2,000 for one senator alone. The ensuing controversy over freebies has led the Legislative Ethics Board to consider writing rules this year that would help define what is excessive. 

Some saw Moeller’s bill as a potentially simpler way of regulating the practice of taking free meals.  Moeller, a Vancouver Democrat, has sponsored variations on HB 1005 each session during the past half-dozen years. In a bid to pay for his plan, he included a lobbyist registration fee to pay for the PDC software upgrades that would make it easier to see who was benefiting from lobbyist expenditures.

On Monday, Moeller said it looked like his quest was dead for another year. He said he blamed Ways and Means chairman Andy Hill, R-Redmond, whom he had talked about the measure earlier in session. "His question to me was, ‘why is it so expensive?’ ” Moeller recalled. 

Moeller said the House had been proposing to put just $100,000 into its budget to start the electronic filing by lobbyists. But his original bill would have raised $1.3 million every two years by putting a registration fee of up to $200 on lobbyist employers and lobbyists earning more than $10,000 in the previous year.

Hill was caught up in budget negotiations Tuesday and could not be reached immediately to comment.

Moeller said he was pleased the proposal got further in the legislative process this year than ever before. If re-elected in November, he said he intends to return with the measure in 2015.

Sen. Joe Fain, the Republican floor leader from Auburn, also had a PDC database bill. But Senate Bill 6414 did not get a hearing in Senate Government Operations, which instead heard Moeller's bill and moved it to Ways and Means.


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