A Sept. 16 Seattle Past-Intelligent article, “The Price of Influence,” details the record $14 million spent by special interest groups, mostly businesses, to lobby the state legislature so far this year. Some of the facts reported weren’t surprising. For instance, Paul Allen’s Football Northwest spent the most of any one group–$2,122,369 to get a special election on the Seahawks stadium. This dwarfs the next highest spender, the Coalition Against Unfair Stadium Taxes, sports merchandisers who spent $288,027 to avoid tax increases to fund the new stadium. The article also states: “State records show that those who spent the most trying to influence lawmakers usually got what they wanted.”
Duh. Tell us something we don’t already know–like that the other real winners in all this are the professional lobbyists, who collect hefty fees for bribing public officials. Gogerty & Stark pulled down $2,033,631 in income from Football Northwest’s lobbying effort. Carney, Badley, Smith, Spellman takes money from a number of health insurance and healthcare companies and has raked in $302,741 so far this year. Alliances Northwest, whose clients include McDonald’s, ARCO, ASARCO & Hanford contractors Fluor Daniel Corp., has collected $233,004 in fees.
Lobbying firms (and their clients) will increase their control of Olympia as term limits kick in next year. Lobbyists are often former politicians and legislators recruited after being defeated at the polls; they know more about how things work in Olympia than most freshman representatives. Already legislators often turn to lobbyists for information and advice on how to vote on specific legislation, a habit that deeply undermines the democratic process. When new reps become understudies of lobbyists owned by Boeing, Microsoft, Weyerhaueser, U.S. West, and the Wash. State Medical Association, there won’t even be a pretense any longer that they represent the residents of their respective districts. Many see their time in office as an audition for a future, more lucrative job as a lobbyist. It’s no wonder politicians protect and speak highly of lobbyists–their buddies, colleagues, and future employers.
Legislators are barred from directly receiving gifts of more than $50 or more than $1,100 in annual campaign contributions from any one source. This hasn’t prevented lobbyists from directly paying off legislators. Loopholes abound. Microsoft, for example, used an exemption on food and drink expenses to throw a party for legislators and their families, encouraging them to bring their kids so they could play with company-provided computers and toys. Lobbyists for the banking and insurance industry footed the bill for Rep. Jerome Devlin’s (R-Richland) engagement party, while other lobbyists paid for a large dinner at the home of State Senate Majority Whip Pat Hale (R-Kennewick).
Even with such lax limits, many lobbyists ignore the law completely. The fine for excessive bribery is only $2,500 for repeat failure to comply, a pittance compared to what’s at stake. The state’s Public Relations Commission has, over the last year or two, shifted its focus to campaign finance violations, which are more high-profile and generate more complaints. This allows lobbyists to continue to abuse the system without worrying about even nominal punishment.
This week, at Gov. Gary Locke’s insistence, legislature returned to Olympia for a special, expensive, one-day session to ensure the right of police to detain people pulled over for minor traffic violations for long periods of time to check for any outstanding warrants against them. A surprise state Supreme Court ruling invalidated this standard police procedure; both wings of our single-party system scrambled to trump the court ruling, noting that it would threaten the way every police department in the state conducts business. They’re right, of course; for a few heady days, anyone pulled over for “suspicion of being a person of color” or for “driving while under the federal poverty line” could not legally be detained too long. (Though, in practice, most jurisdictions said they’d ignore the ruling. So much for enforcing the law.)
Legislators’ haste this week, when crumbling schools and starving kids can’t even raise a yawn, makes it even clearer who the law is meant to control, and who gets the benefits. There’s a lot of money to be made by writing, and rigging, Olympia’s laws. For the beneficiaries, it’s a surprisingly cheap investment. Call your local representative for a rate card today.