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Unda' the Rotunda

Greens Fees are Lobbying Too, State takes a closer look at just what buys influence

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The smoke-filled room in Boise during the second week of the legislative session was a suite at the Qwest Arena. Contract lobbyist Skip Smyser, himself a former legislator who now represents 20 companies, from AT&T to Phillip Morris, invited lawmakers to join him for a basketball expo.

Unda' the Rotunda was not invited. The reason: Smyser did not think elected officials who were "smokin' and jokin'" at the game would appreciate their conversations appearing in the paper.

Smyser's strategy of inviting lawmakers to a game was to let them just be with him for a bit.

"It basically affords an opportunity for people to ask me questions," Smyser, who is head of the Legislative Advisors, said. "A lot of what I do is provide information to legislators."

Last summer, the smokin' and jokin' took place in Sun Valley at the annual Governor's Cup golf tournament.

It is a common practice for deep-pocketed lobbyists to sponsor one or more lawmakers at the charitable event. Major corporations pay the $800 greens fee so the poor citizen legislators can schmooze with them.

But some of these lobbyists did not feel that that type of expenditure—a donation that results in a schmooze—constituted lobbying. Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa asked the Idaho Attorney General's Office to weigh in on the matter.

"We think goodwill is part of lobbying," Ysursa said. And that means expenditures meant to establish goodwill with officials should be publicly disclosed. "Our 11th commandment is: when in doubt, disclose," he said.

The Attorney General's Office agreed: "In summary, activities undertaken by lobbyists for the purpose of developing and maintaining relationships with governmental officials are 'lobbying,' and lobbyists must report associated expenditures to the Secretary of State," the June 7, 2007, memo states.

But Deputy Attorney General Mitchell Toryanski wrote that the statute was not clear and any lobbyist who does not disclose this type of expense could have a pretty good defense.

So Ysursa sent the AG's opinion to all of the registered lobbyists in Idaho. In a few weeks, he'll be able to see who reports the Governor's Cup on their annual expenditure reports.

Ysursa is also putting together a bill to make it crystal clear that when lobbyists and legislators just hang out, it's still lobbying. Or lobbyists and elected officials. And maybe even lobbyists and second-tier state officials, like Chief Deputy Secretary of State Timothy Hurst, who considers himself an executive official.

"I think I am because as chief deputy I advise [Ysursa] on major policy decisions," Hurst said.

Somebody should tell the lobby corps: "I got wined and dined more as a county administrator than I do here," Hurst added.

As the lunchtime gavel echoes into the lobby between the House and Senate, dozens of green-tagged lobbyists queue up awaiting their quarry. Two-by-two, they descend the steps and disappear into the Boise chill in search of paninis, iced tea and a vote.

"When I first came in here, I thought lobbyists were the instrument of the devil," former Speaker of the House Bruce Newcomb said. Newcomb was lurking on the second floor of the annex, waiting for a lunch date himself.

But there are good lobbyists who give a fair assessment of their issue, including both sides of the argument, Newcomb said.

Petitioning the government for a redress is, after all, a First Amendment right. Like freedom of the press to sit in the cheap seats at a basketball game.

Sen. Brad Little, an Emmett Republican and majority caucus chair, said that he tells freshmen senators at their "secret caucus meetings" that lobbyists are obligated to tell them the truth but that they should make sure they know whom the lobbyist is representing.

Little said that nearly every week, lobbyists are punished for not faithfully representing their issues. There are three options: lawmakers can kill their bills, go to their bosses or ignore them, Little said.

Besides the private lunches, organizations host large groups of lawmakers for lunches and dinners and drinks throughout the session. Recently, about two-thirds of the Idaho Legislature had lunch with Idaho Building Contractors Association in the Rose Room.

Little said he uses these opportunities to catch up with fellow lawmakers and make sure the lobbyists are telling them all the same story.

Many lobbyists said they always brief lawmakers on both sides of the story.

But that is part of the problem, said Jim Hansen, former legislator and executive director of United Vision for Idaho, a group that advocates for election finance reform.

UVI members often line up to testify at the Legislature on bills that affect immigrants, the poor and other marginalized groups. After their testimony, a professional lobbyist will get up, state his position briefly and win the vote.

Hansen has to explain to his members that the lobbyist had already presented his testimony over lunch in the weeks or months prior to the hearing. And the lobbyist had likely briefed lawmakers on their counterarguments already as well.

"There's an imbalance that often happens when they (lawmakers) become reliant on lobbyists and the only ones coming to them are the ones that are paid, that are full-time," Hansen said.

Anyone can check the cost of these lunches on the Secretary of State's Web site, but that's not the point, Hansen says.

"All that shows is what's the cost of the lunch, whereas the real valuable asset is the legislator's time."

Information and access are at a premium.

In the last year and a half, at least eight high-ranking lawmakers or government aides have moved into the lobby corps, according to a recent Associated Press report.

Boise Sen. Kate Kelly is introducing two "revolving door" bills aimed at preventing people from leaving government and going right into lobbying or government contracting. The lobbying measure was tried last year, but never got a hearing.

But the root of the problem is money.

You can't talk about lobbyists without talking about the $1,000 or $500 campaign contributions they or their backers make.

The solution, in Sen. Little's eyes, is transparency. Little is working with Ysursa on the lobbyist disclosure bill and wants to make sure that companies don't just set up phantom corporations to funnel money and favors to politicians instead of proper reporting.

Lynn Tominaga, a former state senator from Burley who lobbies for groundwater users, said his biggest allies in the Capitol are committee secretaries. So why don't the secretaries get the payola?

"Most of 'em don't golf," he said.

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