Vying to be heard – lobbyists’ position in Montana politics

  Between committee hearings, floor sessions and hallway conversations inside the Capitol building, there’s little doubt an extensive amount of talking goes on among those directly involved in the 2009 Montana Legislature – and it’s not all hot air. Just what do those discussion lead to and who are the participating players?  What is their role in determining which bills die and which materialize into new laws effecting citizens statewide?  

This three-part series will take a look at just that, with an underlying theme of how Helena politics affect folks in eastern Montana.

Whether you think of them as a den of prowlers, a row of vultures or an established component of the democratic process, the clear fact remains Montana’s 403 registered contract lobbyists play a significant part in state politics. Equipped with facts and figures lobbyists utilize their time, information and relationships to ensure the promotion of their principal’s best interests. They’re also in place to prevent bills that will harm their represented principals from moving forward.
Represented principals include everything from businesses, communities, unions and industries. Among those are: Mid-Rivers Telephone Cooperative Inc., Miles Community College, Billings Area Chamber of Commerce and Montana Association of Theater Owners as well as more well known statewide entities like, PPL Montana, Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks and Montana Farmers Union. 
Rather than investing their time to endorse their own interests, entities look to contract lobbyists to ensure their voice and concerns are heard before the Legislature on bills directly affecting them. Lobbyists’ activities include reading through daily agendas of bill titles scheduled to be discussed at legislative committee hearings, examining those bills that may affect their represented principals, as well as preparing and presenting arguments to be heard before committees made up of state lawmakers in support or opposition to proposed bills. 
“The majority of the work is done at the committee level,” explained Cory Swanson, a Helena lawyer who has served as a contract lobbyist in the 2003, 2007 and current legislative sessions. Swanson, who first became involved in Helena politics in 2001 serving as a legislative aide to then-Speaker of the House Dan McGee, R-Laurel, noted legislators serving on various committees rarely know every aspect of statewide issues that come before them. That fact compels lawmakers to seek out answers.
“When they get here they get bombarded with issues that they’ve never dealt with,” Swanson said of state lawmakers. “What often happens is a legislator says, ‘OK, now what are the people on the other side going to say?’”
Questions like that lead lawmakers to seek out answers from lobbyists who are not only keenly aware of the best interests of their represented principals but are also well-versed on the issues at hand. 
As NorthWestern Energy lobbyist and former legislator Ron Devlin points out, many lawmakers come to Helena with an existing set of core political leanings.
“Most of the legislators work with one set or another,” Devlin said of lawmakers and their relationships with lobbyists on differing sides of issues.
Proposed bills will either move forward to be voted on the floor of the House or Senate or die in committee – much of that is a direct result of testimony heard at the committee level. 
A prevalent perception among the general public seems to be that lobbyists have undue influence over lawmakers. Although that may hold true on the federal level, Montana lobbyists say it really isn’t applicable on the state level. Devlin, who served in the state House during the 2001 and 2003 legislative sessions and began working in the government affairs office of NorthWestern Energy in 2005, believes constituents do not fully understand the value of their voice.
“One phone call from home has more influence on that legislator than anything I can say,” he argued. “The fact that I bought him lunch is not going to make that much difference.”
Swanson agrees, noting he has seen the effectiveness phone calls and e-mails from home have on lawmakers.
Shots on the industry
As an industry, lobbying has taken predictable hits from almost everyone, including Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who first coined the term, “row of vultures,” when describing corporate lobbyists earlier this legislative session. But according to Commissioner of Political Practices Dennis Unsworth, who monitors the lobbying industry within the state, lobbying isn’t an inherently evil profession.
“I think lobbyists play an important role,” Unsworth said. “I think those lobbyists who are careful to stick to the facts and give it to the listeners straight are relied on for that information.”  
Devlin mirrored those same sentiments.
“Ethics is a personal trait,” he noted, explaining regardless of the profession, individuals bring with them their own standards.
“It’s like any cross-section of society,” added Swanson. “There are good and honest mechanics and then they’re those who will cheat … as with any profession, you’ll see the same thing.”
Both Devlin and Swanson dismiss Gov. Schweitzer’s comments on lobbyists.
“It makes a nice quote in the paper,” Devlin said.
“We have a current governor that likes to throw in flamboyant language,” Swanson remarked. “He knows it plays well and he knows it will be quoted.”
The comment did spur on those within the industry to begin selling and wearing lapel vulture pins. Swanson recalled seeing one lobbyist who had four vulture pins running down the lapel of his suit jacket. Devlin, who owns a vulture pin himself but doesn’t wear it, noted beyond having fun with the governor’s comments, the lapel pin project, headed up by Sidney lobbyist Bob Gilbert, serves a higher purpose. Gilbert, who is listed as a contract lobbyist for nine principals, including Walleyes Unlimited and the City of Roundup, has ensured that all proceeds raised from the sales of the pins will be used to benefit the children of former State Rep. George Groesbeck, D-Butte, who died before the start of the 2009 session. 
The same was true with last session’s prowler pins, Devlin noted. After Gov. Schweitzer referred to lobbyists as prowlers, those same lobbyists began to distribute and seemingly proudly wear prowler pins, with proceeds benefiting a charity.
The Capitol’s small community 
As commissioner of Political Practices, Unsworth, who serves in the nonpartisan six-year position, not only monitors statewide and local campaign finances and enforces state code of ethics for state officials and employees, his office accounts for the filing reports of licensed lobbyists and their represented principals. 
Nominated by the Legislature’s leadership, appointed by the governor and confirmed by the state Senate, Unsworth is prohibited from supporting candidates or attending fundraisers.
“We get a lot of complaints on campaign finance,” Unsworth said. “But very few in the area of lobbying. We show just a couple in the last eight years.”
The Capitol’s small community atmosphere is no doubt the reason behind the few complaints, Unsworth noted. But whether that’s due to the close-knit surroundings of the Capitol providing a truthful transparency or because no one within the Capitol wants to have a tattletale reputation, is anyone’s guess. 
“I really don’t know which it is, or if it’s a mixture of both,” Unsworth said of the two schools of thought on the issue.
Lobbyists like Swanson, who represents nine principals including Citizens for Balanced Use and Kalispell Chamber of Commerce, point to a natural weeding out process, whereby those who fail to maintain a solid reputation quickly find themselves elsewhere than in the Capitol’s working surroundings. 
“It’s such a crowded environment and the pace is so fast and everybody knows each other; it’s like a small community,” he said. “If you lie, you lose credibility with legislators, and they’re just not going to trust your word.”
Beyond losing credibility with lawmakers, Devlin points out lobbyists will lose their value to their represented principals.
“Trust is the biggest thing you’ve got going for you,” Devlin explained. “When your credibility is shot, so is your value to your client.” 
With that concept in mind, lobbyists say those with integrity within the industry practice a rigorous standard of providing accurate information to lawmakers, both privately and when appearing before committee hearings. 
State agencies and lobbying
State agencies’ involvement in the legislative process is one area that has created some heartburn among contract lobbyists. 
“There’s no doubt in my mind the biggest lobbyist agency are state agencies,” Devlin said, noting it isn’t uncommon to see employees from the Department of Revenue and the Department of Environmental Quality standing before committees either opposing or supporting proposed bills. “The question is, ‘What should their reporting be?’ ”
Unsworth noted that state employees who serve as lobbyists are required to register just like everyone else. But with state agencies drawing deeper within their departments, Devlin points out that state departments’ interests are being served, whether it’s by one particular employee or a variety from the same department.
“So you don’t have the same people, but the same agency,” he said. “They have an incredible amount of influence on the Legislature.” He noted that this doesn’t include state employees who serve as information witnesses or who appear before appropriations committees seeking funds for their respective departments.
“The people don’t have the full story of what they’re government is doing,” Swanson agreed, noting this is because state agencies are not being held to the same standards, leaving the public unaware of who is supporting or opposing legislation.
“Montana laws are generally intended to regulate lobbyists for hire,” Unsworth explained, noting individuals who lobby for themselves are not required to register with his office. Also exempt from registering are elected federal, state, county, local and tribal officials.
Lobbying reporting practices
A 2003 change in state statute that stipulated only lobbyists that met an annual monetary “threshold” are required to register with the Commission of Political Practices office, drastically reduced the number of registered contract lobbyists within the state. Prior to the 2005 legislative session, which first enacted the 2003 change in state statute, all contract lobbyists were required to register.  Montana was listing anywhere from just over 850 to nearly 1,100 lobbyists, between the years of 1999 and 2003. But since 2005, lobbyist numbers have hovered right around the 500 mark. Although just over 400 lobbyists have registered so far this legislative session, the Commissioner of Political Practices office expects more will register this year.
Principals are required to register lobbyists within five days of employment.
What began as a $2,150 annual monetary threshold has bumped up to $2,400 – meaning lobbyists who receive that amount or more must retain a state lobbying license and list their represented principal(s). Lobbyists who receive $5,000 annually from a principal must also file monthly reports during the legislative session.
This self-reporting system, left to individual principals and lobbyists to fill out and submit, details where time and money have been spent and which bills major effort was exerted, either in opposition or support. 
“I think that system needs work,” Unsworth said, noting Montana law doesn’t give lobbyists clear guidance on what activities to keep track of, leaving some lobbyists and their principals following more stringent tracking standards than others. For example, each entity is left to their own criterion on whether to track time spent speaking with legislators, reviewing bills and preparing arguments for committee hearings. Although these activities are not listed on the monthly L-5 forms, some principals require lobbyists to track the information as a safeguard measure, while other principals do not.
“Some groups are very careful to report everything,” Unsworth said. But noted, “I’m told that they don’t want to appear on the top ten” list of most money spent lobbying.
Dining out is one area where specific standards are set. If a lobbyist foots the bill for state legislator(s) costing more than $25 a plate or a total bill adding up to a $100, the name of the restaurant, legislator name(s) and money spent must be reported. These monthly reports are listed on the Commissioner of Political Practices Web site.
“There’s no tracking of who’s using it,” Unsworth said of the online report, but noted he has heard it is well viewed. “Having it available online is a much better system than having it available in our office.”
Lawmakers’ responsibility
Noting many lobbyists have more historical perspective and experience in the state Legislature than some lawmakers, due to state mandated term limits, Unsworth pointed out that the legislative system is dependant on good people on all sides to provide unbiased, factual information, adding it’s incumbent on legislators to seek out that information from varying viewpoints.
“It’s a difficult assignment,” Unsworth said. “In 90 days there are a lot of important decisions to be made.”
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