Yee bill would shed light on local lobbyists

Hank Stephenson//February 6, 2015

Yee bill would shed light on local lobbyists

Hank Stephenson//February 6, 2015

Businessman with small giftWhile many lawmakers are proposing legislation to restrict access to government meetings and documents, one Republican senator is going the opposite direction, and attempting to shed some light on who is lobbying local elected officials.

To become a professional lobbyist at the Capitol, a person must register as a lobbyist with the Secretary of State’s Office. And in order to ensure that citizens know who is attempting to gain influence with legislators, registered lobbyists are required to report all expenses spent on lawmakers, such as the cost of a business dinner.

But for lobbyists at the city councils, county boards of supervisors or school boards across the state, there is no such requirement. In fact, lobbyists at the local level don’t have to file anything or disclose who they are working for before lobbying local officials.

Republican Sen. Kimberly Yee of Phoenix wants to change that.

Her SB1407 would subject local elected officials and the lobbyists who attempt to woo them to the same rules as lobbyists and policymakers at the state level. The means registering as a lobbyist and filing quarterly expenditure reports detailing what they spend on policymakers, and ultimately increasing regulations on the lobbying industry.

Yee said that after seeing the kinds of regulations imposed upon state lobbyists, she was surprised to learn that similar requirements aren’t already in place for lobbyists at the local level.

“There are officials at the local level who are taken out all the time by vendors who have million dollar contracts to be made and there is no way for the public to see how often they meet, what they’re spending on them,” she lamented.

Yee said that as she drives around her district, she sees the same company being picked over and over again for school construction projects, leading her to wonder if that company really just has the best bid, or if there’s something nefarious going on between lobbyists for the construction company and local school boards.

“It’s about fiscal accountability and transparency for the taxpayers, and tracking how our tax dollars are being used and how are local elected officials are being influenced by those who have a financial interest at that local level,” she said, noting that local officials, unlike the state legislators, have direct say over who wins contracts.

Veteran Capitol lobbyist Barry Aarons, who also lobbies at the local level, said he has a “slightly mixed feeling” about the proposal.

“I’m a low regulation, high disclosure guy,” he said.

He said if lawmakers feel they would be better protecting the public by requiring lobbyists at the local level to register and file quarterly expenditure reports, he would be happy to comply.

“Having said that, I still find it fascinating that we have people who on one side are talking about not regulating businesses, especially small businesses, but are very quick to regulate small businesses who happen to engage in advocacy. We don’t want to regulate dark money, but we do want to regulate advocacy,” he said.

Aarons said the bill leaves out other important boards and commissions that grant contracts, such as planning or parks commissions.

He warned that lawmakers should be careful about whom they consider a lobbyist under the proposal, noting that besides creating good transparency, the bill could also create unintended traps for people who advocate at the local level.

“Do you really want to create a situation where the average Joe and Jill are going to have to start worrying about whether they have to be registered as lobbyists? There’s a point in which some of that can actually suppress involvement with the public and public organizations and advocacy groups with their local government,” he said.