Bill to increase transparency of governmental entity lobbying efforts passes Senate committee

Senate Study Bill 1261 passed through the Government Oversight committee on Wednesday. The bill will increase transparency among lobbying efforts by local government entities.

If a city or county hires a government relations employee, they are subject to Open Records requests. This bill would treat a lobbyists contracted by local governments the same way for the purposes of executing the contract.

Senator Amy Sinclair (R-Allerton), who worked the bill through the five-member committee, said the bill is in response to an earlier bill that would’ve done away with taxpayer funded lobbyists.

Sinclair offered an amendment that passed by a 3-2 vote. Senators Tony Bisignano (D-Des Moines) and Claire Celsi (D-West Des Moines) voted against it. That amendment addressed some concerns that were expressed in subcommittee.

Some of those concerns were related to how it would actually function, about votes on issues and the amount of information required to be published. It also changed the definition of political subdivision to what is listed. Other parts of the amendment limited contract lobbying terms to five years. It addressed how information would be reported and reduced the administrative burden for local governments while still getting information out to people.

Bisignano asked about listing the origins of the bill in an effort to increase transparency on legislation. He talked about an article he had read that said 10,000 bills across the country have been formatted from ALEC.

“They’re (duplicated) from general assembly to general assembly,” Bisignano said. “Word for word. Do we need to go back and say this bill was drafted by ALEC or the Koch Brothers or whoever?”

The amendment discussed the legislative history of the bill, which prompted Bisignano’s question.

Sinclair said the bill is related to public lobbying related to bills in the general assembly.

“We’re not talking about the history or origin of the bill,” Sinclair said. “We’re talking about the transparency of lobbying. The entire bill is about transparency in lobbying and not about bills themselves.”

Bisignano said if transparency is really the focus, then the legislature should tell the public where the bill originates.

Sinclair countered that his idea had nothing to do with lobbying, which was the subject of the bill.

Bisignano said his idea has everything to do with lobbying.

“On the floor we say who asked for this bill — many times we use that,” he said.

Sinclair acknowledged that is asked often and it likely violates the chamber’s rules.

“I’m going to ask you on this bill who asked for this bill? Where did it come from? Whose idea is this?” Bisignano said.

Sinclair said the bill came from a prior bill that banned taxpayer funded lobbying.

“That caused me concern because local municipalities do have the right and responsibility to make sure their constituents are being heard here,” she said. “But I also agree that constituents ought to know about local lobbying on their behalf. As far as drafting, the drafting came entirely from myself, my staff and frankly lobbyists who were interested in making sure this information is publicly available.”

Bisignano said if a bill is drafted outside of Iowa, then Iowans deserve to know that. Sinclair reassured him she drafted the legislation that was being debated.

The amendment passed at that point.

Bisignano offered an amendment that would apply the same standards to privately funded lobbyists.

“My amendment again creates a level playing field for lobbyists regardless of whether they work for a governmental entity or whether they lobby for a private business or organization,” Bisignano said. “Casting this bill as a transparency bill, and in the spirit of transparency, I don’t understand how we can half-transparent something but not go fully transparent.”

Sinclair talked about an idea from former Sen. Mark Chelgren that suggested legislators wear jumpsuits that have sponsor patches.

“Frankly there’s some validity in that being said,” she said

Sinclair disagreed with Bisignano’s amendment, though.

“We can’t apply the same rules to private, restricted donors that we apply to elected officials,” she said.

There are two significant differences. A political subdivision is indeed a subset of Iowa. It has the ability to confiscate property and put people in jail.

“These political subdivisions should be open and honest and accountable,” she said. “Not a single private organization can confiscate my property in the absence of me doing something illegal or can force me to pay for their lobbying activity. While I agree wholeheartedly transparency should exist, by the same token they don’t hold the same level of authority over individuals who are, by the way, paying the bill for lobbying by political subdivisions.”

Bisignano said he could not stand for a bill that would restrict a subdivision’s ability to lobby.

“I’ll say this again, I’ve never seen subdivisions of government so fearful of this body in all the years that I served here than they are today,” Bisignano said.

He talked about the property tax bill that would place additional restrictions on local governments.

“You are taking away all their ability to do their job,” Bisignano said. “So they have lobbyists up here trying to explain to you what that means, so I think public sector lobbyists are probably more needed today than they’ve ever been. You’ve taken away local control, you’ve taken away from home rule, you’ve capped and limited the taxing authority.

“We’ve basically become this super body and we are everything to everybody. Politically well tell schools how to run, tell them what curriculum is going to be, tell local governments how they can tax, how they can enforce their laws. Tell counties that, you know, we want explosives in your community and you’re going to get them. We’ve done about everything humanly possible to take away any individuality in the community.”

Bisignano said we should trust people who are elected.

“Not people who are paid,” he said. “Somebody who gets a bonus by coming up here and their robber barons and walking back with a big fat tax cut or a tax credit. That’s shameful and that’s who we cater to. Not the people who we entrust by electing them to our local offices — people who have committed themselves to public service.”

Bisignano’s amendment failed on a party line vote.

Once discussion turned back to the bill, he repeated some of his thoughts from the subcommittee. He said if transparency is really a priority, then the parties should open up their caucus meetings to the public.

“We talk transparency and there really is no transparency,” he said. “We demand it of local government but we don’t demand it of ourselves. Our caucuses are closed. Nobody knows why we determine what we do and we talk about some awful things in caucus — why we vote for it, who wants it, who needs it. That’s the game we signed up to play.

“This bill is the epitome of what’s wrong with this place. If we really want transparency, everybody ought to be transparent. But we’re only going to make a segment we can take on because we have the ability to. Local government doesn’t contribute to the process and campaigns, the private sector does — and that’s who we cater to. That’s a sad statement. Whether it’s Washington or Iowa or local government — it stinks.”

Celsi said the bill is “a lot disturbing.”

“During this latest local property tax debate, I read it and read it and read it and still couldn’t understand all the implications,” she said. “I turn to my local government officials and lobbyists for some advice. It was invaluable to me trying to make up my mind on what to do with all the amendments and the bill itself. I just feel that restricting in any way their ability to do their jobs is wrong.”

Sinclair said she agreed with everything Bisignano said except the idea that the bill restricts local governments in their lobbying efforts.

“It shines light on what they do,” she said. “It is essential in a time when people don’t trust government anyway. I agree with you — caucus gets weird and why do we do that. Why do we not have the debate open and on the floor instead of before we ever get there? I’m not going to argue that back.”

She did take exception to the idea of people being fearful of the bill.

“If you’re doing your job and being accountable to your constituents — telling them what your doing on their behalf is not an issue over which to be fearful — you should be proud of that,” she said. “If your lobbying efforts reflect the needs and desires and the best interests of your constituents, publishing that information for them to consume is a good thing, why would it be construed as something that’s bad?”

The bill does not restrict activity, Sinclair said in closing.

“It uses a clear process for hiring and to let your people know how much you’ve paid and what they’ve lobbied on on their behalf. That’s all this bill does,” Sinclair said. “Anyone who argues against having that information publicly available frankly I feel like probably has something to hide. I don’t believe that any of my local governments have anything to hide, therefore I don’t feel this bill restricts them.”

Jacob Hall

Author: Jacob Hall