Lobbying the Legislature Costs More Than Operating the Legislature (and related stories)

Apparently, more money is spent on trying to influence the Tennessee legislature than taxpayers spend to operate the institution.
That is the focal point in a series of stories on Tennessee lobbying that ran in Sunday’s News Sentinel. Steve Ahillen took all the reports on lobbyist compensation and lobbying related expenditures filed with the Tennessee Ethics Commission since 2006, the year it was created, and put together a database. The information he compiled was provided to yours truly, who cobbled together the stories.
Here’s a breakdown of the articles and related stuff:
_The centerpiece story reports that somewhere between $88.9 million and $232.1 million has been spent on lobbying since the reporting law began and, given all the limitations on what is reported, it’s probably a lot closer to the upper end of that figure.
That’s an average of $46.5 million per year. The total budget for all operations of the Legislature this year is $39.1 million.
Top spender on lobbying is AT&T and reports indicate a score or more of other companies and associations have lobbying expenditures in the million-dollar range. A list of the top spenders is HERE.
_Disclosed wining and dining of lawmakers by lobbyist employers totals about $2.4 million during the period, averaging close to $500,000 per year. This year set a new record of more than $558,000. (That $2.4 million on “in-state events,” by the way, is not included in the above totals of lobbyist compensation and related expenditures and is handled separately by the Tennessee Ethics Commission in its reporting.)
That’s probably a pittance compared to the old days, before restrictions were placed on lobbyist gifts to legislators in the form of meals, travel and other entertainment. Here’s an excerpt involving Tom Hensley, dean of the state’s lobbying corps.
Hensley said that, in the old days, “the entertainment was fun,” but the change in rules has really made no difference in the effectiveness of lobbyists or how they make their arguments for or against pending bills.
He often still goes to dinner or out for drinks with legislators, Hensley said, but nowadays each legislator simply pays his or her own tab while he pays only for his own food and drink.
In the old days, Hensley was nicknamed “the Golden Goose,” a tribute to his largess. In legislative lingo of the time, a “goose” was the person who picked up the tab at restaurants and bars.
Older legislators and lobbyists still call him “goose” on occasion. But the “golden” is rarely used with lawmakers paying their own way — except at the restricted events.
The new law also requires lobbyists to attend an ethics training class, a requirement Hensley said hasn’t made any difference in things either.
“You have to go to school to be ethical?? I don’t think so. If I wasn’t ethical, I wouldn’t have been here for 50 years.”

There’s a searchable News Sentinel database on wining and dining events. The Ethics Commission also keeps a listing of all events, by year, in one of the best, most easily readable features of its website, HERE.
_Because of the way our state law is written and interpreted, many people advocating for the passage or failure of legislation can, and do, avoid being legally labeled as lobbyists. That, of course, means they avoid the disclosure requirements.
As for interpretation, the leading case is a 2010 decision by the ethics commission in dismissing – after two years of secret investigating and convoluted maneuvering — a complaint filed against a Nashville public relations firm that ran a campaign against wine-in-grocery-stores legislation.
The opinion is an interesting read for state government junkies and, as best I can tell, has never been made available before on the Internet. The link is HERE.
One curiosity of the opinion — In contrast to campaign finance law where corporations are treated as individuals –is that the commission says a corporation or other such entity cannot be a lobbyist – only real individual people.
“A majority of the Commission holds that under the Act, an entity cannot be a lobbyist and that only an individual can be a lobbyist and for this reason Seigenthaler was not lobbying in performing the services described in the complaint,” the opinion states.
Twenty-five other staes require disclosure of specifics on payments to individual lobbyists. The National Center for Money in State Politics recently did a roundup of all 50 state lobbying laws that’s cited in the article.
_A rundown on the types of lobbyists, who may be divided loosely into three categories – the contract lobbyists, the in-house lobbyists and the policy lobbyists. Plus thumbnail sketches on a few individual lobbyists in each category.

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