WASHINGTON -- Petitioning the legislature is a time-honored American tradition and right. State lawmakers were lobbied this year by such disparate groups as exotic dancers, who were against a California proposal that they feared would strip away their employee rights, and medical students, who favored passage of an abortion clinic access measure in New York. But over the last 10 years, there has been a veritable explosion of professional lobbying, and in some quarters, this is causing concern.
Special interests employ more than 100,000 people to curry favor in the 50 state legislatures, more than double the 42,500 lobbyists the Associated Press counted when it last surveyed the situation in 1990.
This explosion of lobbying, which no doubt reflects the added clout of state senators and representatives as power and money shifts away from Washington, has heightened public suspicion of those who seek the ear of state policy makers.
That, in turn, has prompted new laws or talk of new laws designed to register lobbyists and restrict their activities.
Starting in August, Pennsylvania will start enforcing a law calling for heightened scrutiny of that state's $80 million a year lobbying business. It gives the state ethics commission and its attorney general the power to regulate lawyers when they act as lobbyists, and also calls for tougher reporting requirements.
This year, there were also moves in Utah, Kansas and Maryland to tighten the leash on lobbying practices.
"There's been a tremendous explosion in the numbers of lobbyists. As power has devolved from Washington to state capitols, it has made places like Raleigh a more important game for the various interest groups," says Rob Christensen, a reporter who's covered North Carolina's legislature for 22 years for the Raleigh News & Observer.
Of all the states with lobbying restrictions, Massachusetts takes the hardest line: it bans all gifts to all legislators, without exception.
Maine bans gifts, too, but approves meals served at informational programs or prayer breakfasts. New Mexico has a prohibition containing a loophole for reasonable expenses politicians may incur for meals, lodging or travel while making a speech.
Rhode Island's gift barrier also has loopholes. It doesn't cover informational materials, or food and beverages given to the lawmaker away from his or her place of work by an organization before whom the politician is appearing.
Iowa lobbyists are limited to giving lawmakers non-monetary items, and less than $3 dollars worth on any given day. But, in an odd exception, it's okay to bestow 25th and 50th anniversary presents on Iowa politicians. Plaques are fine, too, along with food, beverages, travel and lodging if given in return for the legislator being a part of a panel or speaking at a meeting.
Other states with gift laws are Kentucky, Minnesota, South Carolina, Tennessee and Wisconsin, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Seventeen states have no restrictions on gift-giving by lobbyists. According to NCSL, they are Arkansas, Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Indiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont, Virginia and Wyoming.
Then there's the issue of campaign finance, which is inextricably woven into the work of a lobbyist.
In 1991, Maryland passed a law prohibiting lobbyists from making campaign contributions to state legislators. Five years later, Democratic Maryland senator George Della co-sponsored a bill that would have extended the ban to all candidates for state-wide office, including the governor. His measure died in committee.
"The perception [among voters] is that some legislators may be too close to lobbyists," says Della, a member of Maryland's General Assembly since 1982. "Maybe I'm a dreamer ... the people sent me to Annapolis to represent them. Not to get cozy with lobbyists, not to get wined and dined by them (or) orchestrating or giving money to my campaign."
Like most proponents of lobbying reform, however, Della believes lobbyists perform a useful function.
They "play a role in informing members of the legislature on different issues," Della says. "And that's good. Sometimes you get three different perspectives. It's a way of learning."
The other thing lobbyists do is increase the odds of lawmakers passing legislation that favors a lobbyist's employer. The Associated Press reported that Wisconsin's largest business group spent $506,540 lobbying lawmakers last year and came away with a personal property tax exemption on business computers and equipment, a tax break worth millions to its members.
California special interests spent a record $292.6 million in 1997-98 to lobby the legislature and state agencies, the secretary of state's office said. The previous record of $266.9 billion was established in 1995-96. According to the secretary of state's office, spending on lobbying California lawmakers has jumped 51 percent over the last 10 years.
In South Carolina, where newly-elected Democratic Gov. Jim Hodges led a drive to institute a state-sponsored lottery and where video poker regulations were also an issue before the legislature, the gambling industry spent roughly $400,000 on lobbying, nearly double the amount spent by the state's three biggest utility companies combined.