As the final gavel fell on Indiana’s General Assembly this month, the legislative horse-trading—cashing in political chits and wrangling votes in wood-paneled caucus rooms—came to a close. What didn’t: the cozy relationships lobbyists foster with state lawmakers. In fact, it is after the grind of the legislative session that the courtship really heats up. Good ol’ Hoosier hospitality, it seems, doesn’t stop at the Statehouse’s white-oak doors.
The craft of influencing legislators has become a booming industry. And after a recent dip, it seems to be back on the upswing. In 2013, a small army of lobbyists descended on the Statehouse backed by more than $24 million, according to preliminary year-end figures supplied by the Indiana Lobby Registration Commission—10 percent more than the previous year. (And outstanding 2013 reports were still trickling in as of this writing.)
The spending included lobbyists’ compensation and gifts used to lure lawmakers into conversation about the special interests they represent. On group entertainment and receptions alone, lobbyists shelled out more than $267,000 wooing legislators in 2013—a 20-plus percent increase over 2012—not
including another $4,000 or so on personal gifts.
What’s more, no dollar limit currently exists on the value of gifts lobbyists can give to butter up politicos. And give they do: From meals to sports tickets to out-of-state vacations, lobbyists shower lawmakers with freebies in hopes of garnering face time and, ultimately, sway over public policy. The only catch: Lobbyists must report anything that exceeds $50 in one day or $250 in the course of a year. Spending on legislative gifts has decreased since 2010, when an ethics-reform bill lowered the daily gift-reporting threshold from $100 and the annual minimum from $500. But as special interests increasingly target statehouses rather than Congress to turn public policy, they continue funneling large sums into hiring and compensating lobbyists at the state level, whose growing number exceeds that of legislators by an almost-ridiculous 11:1 margin.
And the appearance that lobbyists are spending less than they used to on gifts might be misleading, anyway. “It’s not that [legislators] are receiving less; it’s that they’re finding other ways to receive the gifts,” says one House member who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It’s a shame, because the [ethics-reform] law was intended to increase transparency, but in some cases it’s had the reverse effect.” For example, he says, as long as a lobbyist invites an entire committee to dinner or an event, he doesn’t have to report who was there.
Does the largesse influence votes? “Not in any way, shape, or form—not for that kind of money,” says State Representative David Wolkins, a Winona Lake Republican who accepted $215.87 worth of tickets (and refreshments) last year for college basketball games, courtesy of the Indiana Energy Association. Wolkins, who chairs the House Environmental Affairs Committee, says he even voted against some of the association’s bills (but not many). As a former physical-education teacher and high-school coach, though, he says he has a hard time turning down free tickets to sporting events: “My opinion is: Report everything.”
“It’s not that I think Indiana legislators are cheap and can be bought with a few steak dinners,” says one reform advocate. “It’s the relationships.”
For the most part, lobbying in Indiana now seems to be less about quid pro quo than it is about finding a soft spot in the heart of a legislator who can help your cause. And while that might not be as sexy as outright corruption, it still gives watchdog groups cause for concern.
“We shouldn’t have anything of value going back and forth between a lobbyist and a legislator, because when you allow that to happen, you’re creating this whole relationship thing, and that muddies up the water terribly,” says Julia Vaughn, policy director (and lobbyist) for Common Cause Indiana, the state chapter of a national good-government advocacy group. “That’s my problem. It’s not that I think Indiana legislators are cheap and can be bought with a few steak dinners at Ruth’s Chris. It’s the relationships.”
Those relationships could come under closer scrutiny before long. This past January, Representative Gail Riecken, D-Evansville, filed HB 1329, which would task the ILRC with creating standards of conduct for lobbyists and give lawmakers the opportunity to file a complaint with the commission if they believe a lobbyist has violated those standards (although the bill didn’t make it out of committee).
In their defense, lobbyists point to a provision in the state Constitution that holds, “No law shall restrain any of the inhabitants of the State from assembling together in a peaceable manner, to consult for their common good; nor from instructing their representatives; nor from applying to the General Assembly for redress of grievances.”
In other words, “instructing their representatives” and “applying to the General Assembly” are constitutional rights, argue lobbyists. And if that entails caring for a legislator’s personal constitution—keeping him (or her) well-fed and entertained—then so be it.
Making the Grade—Not!
B- Indiana’s lobbying disclosure rating from the State Integrity Investigation, a pro-
ject of the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C., due to our decent scores on requiring special interests to report lobbying spending and other regulations.
C- The state’s corruption-risk grade—ranking Indiana 23rd nationwide—based in part on how hospitality and gifts are doled out to lawmakers.
C- and D+ Corruption-risk grades for Wisconsin and Colorado, respectively, where lobbyists can’t buy lawmakers so much as a cup of coffee (proof that restricting gift-giving doesn’t guarantee high marks).
F Indiana’s grade for legislative ethics regulation and enforcement, which stems in part from poor ratings for state agencies tasked with monitoring lawmakers’ activities.
Strength in Numbers
1,670 — Total number of registered lobbyists in Indiana (an estimate from the ILRC, whose spokesperson told IM, “We do not keep an actual running tally”).
150 — Members in the Indiana General Assembly.
11:1 — Ratio of lobbyists to lawmakers.
20-plus — Former state lawmakers and legislative staffers who are now lobbyists, according to a Common Cause Indiana estimate.
$22.1 million — Amount spent by special interests on lobbying activities in 2012, according to the ILRC.
$24.3 million — Spending in 2013, according to preliminary reports from the ILRC (10 percent more than in 2013).
$161,778.87 — Average spent by special interests per lawmaker in 2013 (an increase of $14,000 per legislator over 2012).
$22,616 — Base salary of General Assembly members.
$267,453.02 — Amount lobbyists spent on group entertainment and receptions for lawmakers in 2013.
$4,000 — Approximate amount spent on individual gifts to all lawmakers in 2013.
$828 — Value of the largest gift given to a lawmaker last year (six Pacers tickets for Rep. Lloyd Arnold, R-Leavenworth).
$451,926 — Lobbying expenses in 2013 for the highest-spending special-interest group (Stand for Children, the Indy chapter of a national education-reform group).
$444,517 — Lobbying expenses in 2013 for the second-highest-spending special interest (Indiana Bell Telephone).
$384,894 — Lobbying expenses in 2013 for the third-highest-spending special
interest (liquor distributor Monarch Beverage Company).
See more stories on Hoosier Lobbying here.
Check, Please! The restaurants, bars, and hangouts where lobbyists and legislators get down to business.
Are You Not Entertained? Gifts from lobbyists that got legislators out of the house.
This One’s on Me A lobbyist shares tricks of the trade.
Illustration by Daniel Stolle