Voters who want to see where candidates for public office are getting their money, as well as how those candidates are spending campaign contributions, can easily search the database at the state Public Disclosure Commission's Web site (www.pdc.wa.gov).
But those same voters who want to know how lobbyists are spending their money to wine and dine elected officials are pretty much out of luck. While lobbyists file regular reports with the PDC, there’s no compilation or easy-to-search database of lobbyist expenditures.
If you want to know how many times Boeing lobbyists have taken House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt, R-Chehalis, to lunch or dinner, you have to check individual lobbyists’ reports.
The same holds true to see how many times lobbyists for the state Labor Council have entertained Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia.
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That’s why the Public Disclosure Commission is solidly in support of House Bill 1436, which would allow the state agency to develop a lobbyist database. It’s a good bill that merits legislative approval because it brings more transparency to the influence lobbyists have in the lawmaking process.
And it basically pays for itself.
Under the proposal, according to PDC assistant director Doug Ellis, his agency would hire temporary employees to develop the database. The cost for the hardware and software would be about $501,000, but that would be largely recouped by charging lobbyists a small, one-time reporting fee. The fee would raise about $486,000, Ellis said. Once the database was established, the temporary employees would go away.
Residents would get a database allowing them to see how much a particular lobbyist earns and what clients he or she is working for. The database would show how much a company or union, for example, was spending on lobbying, including such things as printing and entertaining costs.
The database would allow voters to look up a hometown lawmaker and see which lobbyists had taken the elected official to lunch or dinner, where they went and how much the meal cost. Also included would be a detailed list of contributions made by the lobbyist’s employer and the lobbyist.
“The idea for this bill is from the original (public disclosure) initiative – to give transparency to the lobbying efforts, basically to show people what’s going on,” Ellis said.
That’s a good thing.
The original intent of Initiative 276 in 1972 was threefold:
• Disclose the personal finances of candidates seeking public office.
• Expose their campaign finances to public scrutiny – where their donations come from and how they are spent.
• Reveal the money behind lobbying efforts.
Campaign and personal-finance reports are readily available at the Public Disclosure Commission. What’s missing is database technology on the lobbying piece, and that’s what House Bill 1436 calls for.
Lobbyists and their employers spent about $55 million trying to influence policy in Washington state last year, according to Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, the sponsor of HB 1436. Moeller says it’s time the state has a better compilation database to help the public see how that money is spent.
Moeller’s legislation requires electronic filing of lobbyist expense forms starting Jan. 1, 2012, if a firm or lobbyist earns or spends at least $10,000.
A similar bill passed out of committee and died in House Rules last year, but Rep. Jeanne Darneille, D-Tacoma and the chairwoman of the House General Government Appropriations Committee, said she thinks there’s a better chance of passage this year.
Several lobbyists called the measure an unfair tax.
“I believe there is a right to petition government, and this is a tax on that right,” said Brad Tower, one of three lobbyists who testified against the measure. He said his experience creating a lobbyist-expense database suggests that the PDC costs are high.
Other lobbyists question the fee.
But Ellis is right when he says the $486,000, one-time fee is small potatoes compared with a single year of lobbying expenses of more than $55 million spent by 700 lobbyists, 1,000 lobbyist employers and 250 public agencies that file lobbying reports.
This is a good bill and merits legislative support because it will result in more disclosure and transparency on the influence of money in politics.