Special interests spend big money lobbying state legislators -- more than half a billion dollars in 2000, according to a new study by the Center for Public Integrity.
The study, entitled Fourth Branch, was released Wednesday May 1 in connection with a book called "Capitol Offenders: How Private Interests Govern Our States." The publications shed light on the gray areas of public policy-making by identifying the top spending industries, the professional interests of lawmakers and the revolving door that often exists between legislating and lobbying.
The Fourth Branch looked at 34 states -- the other 16 either had no disclosure requirements or there was insufficient information to include them. It found that lobbyists spent the most in California($180 million), followed by New York ($66.3 million), Massachusetts ($47.7 million), Pennsylvania ($46.7 million), and Washington State ($31.3 million).
"The advantage of lobbying at the state level is access,' said Kurt Schlieter, a former state lobbyist for the gun industry. "It is easier to get to know a state legislator on a personal level and that brings influence they trust you," he said.
By donating to legislative campaigns and wining and dining lawmakers, lobbyists build relationships. "It is a recipe of liquor and love," Schlieter said.
Both publications make the argument that lobbyists have too much influence on states where lawmakers work part-time and are underpaid with too few staff.
"Literally hundreds of lawmakers are involved in apparent or real conflicts of interest," said Chuck Lewis, President of CPI. "If there is an added burden on the states it is because they have citizen legislatures and because these guys have day jobs. You want to take advantage of their expertise but there is only one way to go - you have to have disclosure, transparency, openness," he added.
According to the findings, three states have no financial disclosure laws, seven states don't have conflict of interest laws and ten state ethics commissions have not met for the last five years.
"There is a little bit of an original armature hour when it comes to ethics and disclosure and really, good government at the state level," Lewis said.
Nearly 37,000 businesses, associations and interest groups employ lobbyists in the states and the insurance industry leads the pack. Interests concerned with health care services, education and issues related to local government are the other top advocates.
Texas is lobbied by more insurance organizations than any other state and the legislature passed tort reform bills that are backed by this industry.
Since the 1940s the insurance industry has been regulated at the state level, which explains the large number of insurance lobbyists. But the study says that at least 136 legislators work for an insurance business.
It isn't unusual for the same industries that lobby lawmakers to also employ them, the study says. Many of the 5,056 legislators the Center surveyed are lawyers, educators or work for local government.
The study criticizes the practice of lawmakers who allow lobbyists to write the bills they then sponsor and lawmakers who retire only to be hired by industries to lobby their former colleagues.
Four former house speakers from Florida became lobbyists and in 1995, ten former lawmakers from Maryland joined lobbying firms, it says.
Finally, the study says the influence of special interest groups will grow in states where term limits hold lawmakers to a proscribed number of years of public service.
"Many of these lobbyists are well trained and have been around sometimes for decades," said Larry Sabato, political scientist at the University of Virginia. "I always look to see in a system whether there is institutional memory. If it's [within] the legislators, they're in a good position to deal with the lobbyists. If the lobbyists have it, then they are in a great position to do something for their clients."
Chuck Perricone, a Republican former speaker of the Michigan legislature, disagrees. Michigan is one of 17 states with term limits. "The lobbying community is struggling. They have lost their system of shortcuts that were based on long term relationships," Perricone told Stateline.org . A state-by-state breakdown of lobbying expenses and activity in your state can be found at: CPI Survey.
The research was funded by several organizations including: the Joyce Foundation, the Carnegie Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Open Society Institute. CPI researches government practices and ethics in an effort to hold lawmakers accountable.