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Definition of lobbyist hard to pin down

‘Capitol Times’ analysis of lobbying records reveals loopholes, reporting gaps and errorsWhen John Q. Public comes down to the Legislature to give his elected officials a piece of his mind on the legislation of the day, he is engaged in lobbying.  But that doesn’t mean he’s a lobbyist.

Even the question of who is a lobbyist is debatable, thanks to wide-ranging exemptions in the laws governing who is required to register as a lobbyist. Those exemptions cover everyone from John Q. Public to, arguably, one of the state’s most powerful public policy groups: The Goldwater Institute.

And while Assistant Secretary of State Jim Drake said there are many good reasons for certain exemptions, he said the current statutes are too broad, and lead to organizations and people flouting the spirit of the law.

He describes the exemptions as so big “you could drive a truck through them.”

Some of the broadest exemptions cover a person who answers technical questions and provides technical information at the request of a lobbyist or legislator, and a person who belongs to an association but who is not its official lobbyist, as long as neither make expenditures lobbyists are required to disclose.

The exemptions have led to a long-running standoff between the Secretary of State’s Office and the Goldwater Institute. The secretary of state has repeatedly asked the institute’s employees who regularly discuss legislation with lawmakers and testify during committee hearings to register as lobbyists. But the Goldwater Institute has argued that because they are only providing “expert testimony,” the employees are not required to register as lobbyists.

And while the Secretary of State’s Office won a small battle when the institute registered as a lobbying entity with a single designated lobbyist in 2011, the office still argues that several of the institute’s other employees need to register as lobbyists.

The murky statutes around who is and who isn’t a lobbyist have inspired bills from both sides of the aisle to clarify the language in statutes.

Last year, Republican Rep. Justin Olson of Mesa introduced a bill that would have added another exemption from registering as lobbyists for nonprofit 501(c) (3) organizations such as the Goldwater Institute. This year, Democratic Sen. Steve Farley of Tucson introduced a bill to clarify that providing a legislator with arguments or a description of the effects of potential legislation does not constitute providing technical information.  Those bills were never heard in a committee.

Goldwater isn’t the only organization that has had to go back and register as a lobbyist. Drake said every year one or two groups start showing up at the Legislature and lobby for or against legislation.

This year, Mi Familia Vota, a nonprofit Latino get-out-the-vote organization, started spending more time at the Legislature, battling a handful of election law changes that would affect their organization.  When the Secretary of State’s Office said it believed Mi Familia Vota was lobbying and must register as a lobbying organization, the organization quickly signed up.

“Usually, it just takes a quick phone call,” Drake said.

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