“With as much specificity as possible.”
That is the instruction given to Virginia registered lobbyists about how they should list the various “executive and legislative actions and procurement transactions” they seek to influence on behalf of their principals. The instruction to be as specific as possible is routinely ignored and never enforced.
Most of the hundreds of annual lobbyists disclosure forms filed on behalf of corporations, unions, associations, and government entities reveal nothing about which bills, resolutions, budget items or appointments they sought to influence. Most simply report working on “all matters related to” or “matters of interest to” that company or association or entity. One Chamber of Commerce lobbyist replied simply: “business issues.”
It is hard to blame the lobbyists for being vague. In the illustration above, which is from the official example provided on a state website for those filling out the form, the stock phrase “all matters related to….” is shown to be acceptable.
July 1 was the annual deadline for lobbyist filings and if you know how to maneuver on the database you can find them here. Set the date range for 2017-2018 and then enter a name for the lobbyist or their principal, which can be a client or an employer. Look for the disclosure reports. There are still some reports missing but most are up. (The data will also eventually be picked up on the Virginia Public Access Project lobbyist listings.)
There are many filings which do list specific bill numbers where the principal’s views were communicated and some even go so far as to list specific budget items by number. But even in those cases it is not possible to determine if lobbyist expressed support, opposition or sought to amend the bill. In some cases lobbyists suggested, requested or actually provided the text of a bill or amendment – an important specific detail never reported.
So many of the reports fail to list bill numbers or other details that there is no point in singling out anyone for doing so. Some of the largest and busiest law firm lobby shops routinely use the “all matters” or “matters related” phrase or something similarly amorphous.
An earlier post described the way some lobbyists evade reporting the names of officials and their families on their entertainment expenses by splitting the cost between more than one client to stay below the $50 reporting trigger.
This failure to require actual details on which bills, appointments or budget decisions are being influenced – ignoring what appears to be a clear instruction – is another weak spot in Virginia’s oversight. Absent that information the reports are worthless.
Other sections of the reports deal with spending on communication efforts, with advertising, social media and direct mail becoming increasingly common in legislative battles. How much out-of-town lobbyists spent on hotels for themselves, or whether they rented a locker or subscribed to the bill tracking service, are details which are included. They are also details which do not matter.
The required information on compensation is also meaningless because most lobbyists pro-rate the amount based on the narrow percentage of their time spent in direct contact with legislators or other officials. Again, the reports are worthless.
How much information about what bills drew the attention and effort of the lobbyists could be the subject of debate. The lobbyists’ natural inclination would be to share nothing. Open government advocates would want to know everything. Right now “nothing” is winning.
Many of these lobbyists are working for state agencies or for local governing boards, school boards or authorities. They are spending taxpayer dollars seeking to influence tax and spending decisions or changes to their client’s authority – undisclosed government-to-government lobbying on our dime.
The private company or association lobbyists use private dollars, but are often fighting proposed regulations or seeking for the law to give them an advantage over customers or competitors. Many of them are seeking tax changes or spending items in the budget that will provide a benefit to them or their stockholders.
One of the most important discussions during 2018 has been about filling an open seat on the State Corporation Commission, still unresolved. The SCC is the crucial regulator for multiple businesses in Virginia. You may look in vain for a lobbyist who discloses talking to legislators about any candidate for that job. Does that mean no lobbyist has weighed in? Unlikely.
Any competent lobbyist can sit down at the end of the session and list the bills or issues worked in the previous weeks, and some record the specific meetings or communications. (Not all are competent, but that’s another issue.) They know what they did, and in most cases their employers or clients have received regular reports, with full specificity. Requiring a list of bills and issues that were worked on the report would not be onerous.