Lobbyists spend big bucks for influence

Four of the biggest lobbying spenders are in the health-care industry.

HARRISBURG (AP) — Health care providers, insurers and utilities helped push lobbying expenditures to about $37 million in the first half of 2007 — a sign of significant growth in efforts to influence state government over the five years that Pennsylvania was the only state without a lobbyist-disclosure law.

Nearly $1 million of that amount went to state officials for meals, plane tickets, hotel rooms and other gifts, The Associated Press found.

At the current rate, spending by corporations, trade associations and other special interests that employ lobbyists is on track to far exceed the $52 million reported in all of 2001, the last previous year for which the state required disclosure.

The number of lobbyists is also up more than 35 percent.

The $37 million in lobbyist spending from January through June, a figure which the AP drew from data obtained from the Department of State, in part reflected high-stakes battles over health care, energy and communications.

More than 1,300 companies and groups reported spending money for lobbying during the first half of the year, and the top 10 spenders accounted for about $4.5 million, or more than 10 percent, of the expenditures, the AP found.

Four of the biggest spenders are focused on health care, while four others are utilities or associated groups.

Lobbyists’ employers reported spending about $914,000 on gifts and hospitality — such as meals, plane tickets and hotel rooms — for individual state officials. But only a small portion of those expenditures were substantial enough to require that they identify the beneficiaries — gifts to any individual that total at least $250 in one year, or meals, airfare and other hospitality totaling more than $650 a year.

The most expensive gift reported — valued at $3,300 — was bottled water that the Pennsylvania American Water Company provided for the celebration of Gov. Ed Rendell’s second inaugural in January.

Other gifts included two tickets each to the U.S. Open Golf Tournament in Oakmont for Rep. Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, and state Labor Secretary Stephen Schmerin from the Greater Pittsburgh Convention & Visitors Bureau. The combined value of the tickets was $960.

The Pennsylvania Bar Association reported picking up a $3,141 tab for Sen. Stewart J. Greenleaf, R-Montgomery, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and a $2,477 tab for House Majority Leader H. William DeWeese, D-Greene, both panelists at the group’s midyear meeting in Mexico in January. The payments covered the lawmakers’ airfare, rooms and meals, said association spokeswoman Marcy Mallory.

In June, the bar association reported giving Greenleaf an engraved clock worth $340 for his “unparalleled service to lawyers.”

But the vast majority of lobbying dollars financed the day-to-day business of building relationships — critics call it buying influence — with lawmakers and regulators so that clients’ viewpoints will stand out in the avalanche of information that policymakers must sift through.

“The more honest you are and the more information you have ... the more effective lobbyist you’ll be,” said Dr. Mark Piasio, an orthopedic surgeon who finished a two-year stint as president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society earlier this month. The society, which speaks for about 18,000 doctors, was the second-largest spender, reporting nearly $605,000 in lobbying expenditures.

Lobbyist spending reports for the third quarter of the year are due Tuesday, although about half of the reports are submitted on paper and require additional time for processing.

The ranks of lobbyists and “principals” — the companies and groups that employ lobbyists and bear primary responsibility for reporting expenditures — expanded substantially over the past five years.

About 800 lobbyists were registered in 2001. This year, there are more than 1,100 lobbyists — the equivalent of four for each of the 253 members of the Legislature.

The law that took effect Jan. 1 removed Pennsylvania’s stigma as the only state without a disclosure law. One national watchdog group described the five-year lapse in reporting requirements as “open season for lobbyists” in the state, although the Senate and the governor’s office had established separate, interim disclosure rules for lobbyists seeking to influence senators or executive branch agencies.

The state Supreme Court struck down the previous law in 2002 on grounds that it encroached on the court’s constitutional authority to regulate the many lobbyists who are lawyers, too. The new law requires that alleged conflicts of interest involving lawyer-lobbyists be referred to directly to the court’s Disciplinary Board, but the State Ethics Commission oversees other aspects of compliance and enforcement.

Ten months into the new law, public access to the lobbying information remains difficult.

Visitors to the Department of State’s Web site are limited to viewing one report at a time. The Legislature passed the law just weeks before it was to take effect, and department officials promise that enhancements are in the works.

Jessica Myers, the department’s chief of campaign finance and lobbying disclosure, said her office is developing a more powerful search engine that will make it possible to analyze the reports online. She said she hopes that work will be done by next summer.

Interpreting the reports is complicated by inconsistencies in how the spending is reported.

For example, Verizon Pennsylvania’s nearly $334,000 in expenditures makes it No. 7 among the top 10 spenders. But adding in the totals separately reported by Verizon Wireless and four other Verizon entities pushes the corporate total to nearly $730,000 — second only to the more than $933,000 reported by the Pennsylvania Hospital & Healthsystem Association.

“The law clearly states that each entity must report its lobbying expenses, and that’s the approach Verizon takes,” said Verizon spokeswoman Sharon B. Shaffer.

Conversely, the University of Pennsylvania combines the cost of lobbying by the university, its health system and its veterinary school in a single quarterly report — complicating comparisons with the University of Pittsburgh and Temple University, which separately report their lobbying expenses for the universities and their health care operations.

Other wrinkles in the new law are being ironed out in pending regulations that will provide principals and lobbyists with more detailed guidance on what expenses have to be reported. A special panel of state lawyers, legislators and one lobbyist has spent most of this year discussing the fine points of those rules and its chairman said he hopes they will be in place by spring.

In the meantime, lobbyists and principals said they will err on the side of caution when tallying lobbying expenses.

“We report everything,” said Sam Marshall, president of the Insurance Federation of Pennsylvania, which represents more than 200 commercial insurance companies. “You don’t get in trouble for reporting too much. You get in trouble for reporting too little.”