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Bill milling: Lobbyists draft bills, then openly roam Capitol seeking sponsors

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On any given day during the first few weeks of the legislative session, lobbyists clutching blue and brown folders crowd the entrances of the House and Senate buildings, staking out prime real estate for catching lawmakers on the fly.

The ubiquitous folders contain not-yet-filed bills, known as “intro sets.” Attached to the outside of each folder is a list of all 90 lawmakers, alongside a space for their signature as a sponsor or co-sponsor of the bill.

And as lawmakers enter the buildings before the deadline to introduce new bills, they’re often greeted by advocates with pens and would-be laws in-hand, asking: Will you sponsor my bill?

The lobbyists come from some of the most powerful political groups in the state, including the Center for Arizona Policy, the Arizona Citizens Defense League and public employee unions. They are often spotted milling about the lobby, seeking sponsors on bills that might create the next big controversy.

The flamboyance with which some lobbyists flaunt their ability to gather signatures on “their bills” in The People’s House perturbs some longtime lobbyists. In the past, at least, the practice of gathering sponsors on bills was kept out of public view.

Collecting signatures from a sponsor and co-sponsors is the final step in a process that turns an idea into a bill. And often it leaves the lawmakers themselves playing a minor role.

Unwritten rules

Marcus Dell’Artino, a lobbyist who has been at the Capitol for almost 20 years, said there used to be an unwritten rule against lobbyists flashing bills around that was enforced by staff and the older lobbyists.  But in recent years, that rule has been apparently forgotten.

“Everybody sort of knew it happened, but it was never so out in the public eye. Now these guys walk around with the bill folders in their hands, flashing them around and holding them up,” Dell’Artino said.

While lobbyists are an important part of the legislative process, he said, it makes his industry look bad when his colleagues solicit bill sponsors in front of the general public or schoolchildren taking a tour of the Capitol.

“It’s one more case of the old unwritten rules probably need to be written down at some point,” Dell’Artino said.

Neither the House nor Senate has any written rules against lobbyists gathering lawmakers’ signatures on legislation. But Dell’Artino said some top staffers, including Senate Chief of Staff Wendy Baldo, have earned a reputation for sharply telling lobbyists to not wave their bills around. The practice is noticeably more prevalent in the House.

But even Dell’Artino admitted that since the unwritten rules haven’t been enforced in recent years, he’s broken them, too. Still, he at least stuffs the bill into another folder or, in lieu of that, tucks it into his belt behind his back, covered by his suit jacket.

Standing in the House lobby recently, Rob Dalager, another longtime lobbyist, solicited a pair of lawmakers to sponsor a bill on behalf of his agency’s client, Scottsdale Art Auction, to exempt “works of fine art” from the sales tax.

But he said he’s still not a fan of gathering sponsors and co-sponsors on bills himself.

“It used to be forbidden, now it’s just (somewhat) hidden,” he said, adding that he wishes the practice would be forbidden again.

Dalager said even if lobbyists suggest bill ideas to lawmakers on behalf of clients, lawmakers feel more invested in the legislation if they’re the ones actually gathering signatures from co-sponsors.

But often, the first time lawmakers glance at a bill is when they’re approached to be a sponsor. Frequently, lobbyists themselves draft the legislation, or they request the Legislature’s legal department to draft legislation for them.

‘Early warning system’

Only a lawmaker or their “authorized representative” may request a draft bill be written by the Legislature’s legal department – Legislative Council.

But authorized representative is a loose term. It’s essentially the honor system.

Lawmakers don’t fill out or sign a form to authorize someone as their representative, and Legislative Council doesn’t keep any records on who is an authorized representative of whom, according to Legislative Council Director Michael Braun.

Instead, Braun said, the agency keeps the lawmakers in the loop about bills requested on their behalf to ensure there’s no monkey business from lobbyists working on a lawmaker’s behalf.

“There’s no form, there’s no matrix, we don’t have a spreadsheet that says for Member A, the following 16 people are authorized to open folders. We don’t maintain any of that. But what we do have in place of that is a system where, early on, the member gets a copy (of draft legislation). And if they’re at all confused about where it came from, they can nip it in the bud right there,” Braun said.

The drafts are a kind of “early warning system” for a lawmaker who may not have authorized a lobbyist to draft legislation on their behalf, or who may have misunderstood or been misled about the purpose and effect of the legislation.

“We open probably 1,800 to 2,000 bill folders, I’m not saying there is never a misunderstanding, but if there is, this system seems to identify that early on,” Braun said.

He said there’s also a “fail safe” in the system because final drafts of legislation are sent only to the lawmaker, not the lobbyist or other authorized representatives who could then shop the bill around for another sponsor.

If there’s a mix up, and a lobbyist asks for a bill a lawmaker didn’t authorize or doesn’t support, the lawmaker can just tear it up.

The lawmaker who authorized the draft bill may ultimately decide not to sponsor the legislation, and instead give it to the lobbyist to shop around for another sponsor, but that’s outside Legislative Council’s jurisdiction, Braun noted.

But even if there was a list of authorized representatives, it would not be public record. That’s because almost everything Legislative Council does is exempted from the public record laws due to legislative privilege and attorney-client privilege.

That means there is no way to know which lobbyists requested which bills on which lawmaker’s behalf.

It’s also impossible to tell what percentage of bills are requested by lawmakers versus lobbyists.

And it’s impossible to tell if the number of lobbyists requesting Legislative Council draft legislation has increased or decreased in recent years.

Braun said that generally, most of the requests for bills come from lawmakers or legislative staff. Lobbyists make up the next largest group of bill requestors. And occasionally, he said, a constituent will even come in after having spoken with a lawmaker about a bill idea.

But Braun said just looking at who officially asks for the bill is a poor gauge of where the legislation actually came from. In some cases, a lobbyist could approach a lawmaker with a bill already drafted. The lawmaker or their office secretary could send that draft to Legislative Council to be finalized.

The art of collecting sponsors

Marilyn Purvis, a lobbyist since 2013, said her firm regularly writes legislation for its clients in-house, and then runs those drafts past their own attorneys before submitting them, or having a lawmaker submit them, to Legislative Council for a final draft.

And there’s a certain amount of strategy that goes into collecting sponsors and co-sponsors on legislation, she said. When searching for a prime bill sponsor, lobbyists first look to the chairperson of the committee where the bill is likely to be assigned.

“That’s assuming you have a good relationship with them, and assuming they’re a good bill sponsor, because some lawmakers will really learn the issue and make sure that it gets (all the way) to the end of the line. They also have to have a relationship in good standing with the governor and the House speaker and Senate president. You have to consider all of these things before picking a sponsor,” she said.

And, she noted, the main sponsor really has to be a Republican.

She said when possible, lobbyists also try to get lawmakers from across the political spectrum and across the state to sign on as co-sponsors, to show the bill has broad support. That way, lawmakers see someone they trust is a sponsor, and instinctively think it must be an OK piece of legislation.

“Although, I don’t know how much gravity (weight) that carries now, given that it seems there is a growing popularity of just getting a bunch of people on every bill,” she said.

Purvis said she also prefers that lawmakers get co-sponsors themselves, and she knows that the practice of lobbyists gathering signatures in the chambers is frowned upon. But as part of a full-service lobbying firm, it’s her duty to ensure the lawmaker has help at every step of the process – whether that means gathering signatures for the lawmakers, or writing lawmakers’ talking points and counterpoints on the legislation.

And while some lobbyists think their colleagues should be less involved in the front end of creating legislation, Purvis said her clients want her to be involved in the bill process from start to finish.

“You (as a lobbyist) are going to (lawmakers) because they are the one vessel by which you are able to pass this bill you’re trying to pass. But you at the end of the day are responsible for what happens to the bill,” she said.

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