Lobbyists reported spending about $1 million this spring on Arkansas lawmakers amid the longest legislative session since the Great Depression.
That amount is up by $140,000 from the $860,000-plus that lobbyists reported spending during the 2011 regular session.
But it’s down slightly from the $1.1 million-plus reported in the 2007 session and more than $1.3 million reported in the 2009 session. The spending in 2009 was buoyed by two lobbyists representing a tobacco company who shelled out more than$330,000 in an unsuccessful campaign to kill Gov. Mike Beebe’s plan to increase tobacco taxes.
Most of the lobby expenses reported are for “food, lodging or travel,” “entertainment” and “special events” for lawmakers. But these expenses aren’t exclusively for wining and dining legislators. They include such costs as advertising, postage, printing and a place to stay overnight for some lobbyists.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette compiled these figures by reviewing more than 1,500 monthly reports that 379 registered lobbyists and lobbying groups filedduring the first four months of this year. The number of registered lobbyists and lobbying groups increased from 410 in 2007 to 420 in 2009 before dropping to 382 in 2011 and again in 2013.
This year’s reports originally showed about $860,000 in lobbyist expenses, but several lobbyists filed amended reports last week after the newspaper raised questions about certain lobbying expenses.
While the Arkansas Ethics Commission has the power to sanction lobbyistsand lobbying groups with fines ranging from $50 to $2,000 for not disclosing expenses, commission director Graham Sloan said he doesn’t recalla citizen ever filing a complaint against a lobbyist based on the contents of the lobbyist’s expense report.
“We don’t have the manpower to review the [lobbyist reports’] contents,” he said. The commission’s staff reviews whether lobbyists file their reports and whether they are filed on time, he said.
Noble Strategies - founded by Ben Noble, a former aide to U.S. Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Dale Bumpers - reported $126,945.50 in additional expenses on behalf of its client Nucor for newspaper ads opposing a proposed $125 million bond issue by the state for the proposed Big River Steel plant near Osceola.
That increased the firm’s lobbying expenses to $138,936 in the first four months of this year. That’s the most reported by any lobbyist and lobbying group during that period.
“While we strive to achieve 100 percent accuracy in our reporting, we fell short on this one due to oversight,” Noble said Friday after the Democrat-Gazette questioned whether the spending on Nucor’s newspaper ads should have been reported on a lobbyist report.
The Mullenix & Associates lobbying firm - founded by former Rep. Ted Mullenix, R-Hot Springs - amended its report to include spending $21,773.03 on a Feb. 27 legislative reception at the Capital Hotel in Little Rock for one of its clients - the Arkansas Realtors Association - after the Democrat-Gazette asked Mullenix’s partner and wife, Julie Mullenix, about whether such a reception was heldthis year.
That increased the lobbying firm’s expenses to $71,918 during the first four months of this year, the second-largest amount reported by a lobbyist and lobbying group in that period.
“I just missed it,” Julie Mullenix said Friday when askedwhy the legislative reception expense wasn’t previously reported by the lobbying firm. “It was an error.”
Mullenix said 125 to 150 Realtors and about 75 lawmakers attended the reception during a legislative session in which she said the association didn’t push any major legislation.
Mullenix & Associates’clients include Oaklawn Jockey Club. The firm persuaded lawmakers to refer to voters a measure to make it harder for groups to collect enough signatures to place measures on ballots statewide. It also represented Blue Cross & Blue Shield, which backed successful legislation authorizing the use of federal Medicaid dollars to purchase private health insurance for about 250,000 uninsured Arkansans.
Among other things, Mullenix & Associates reported spending about $9,000 on group events and food, lodging or travel representing Oaklawn Jockey Club, and about $4,000 on similar expenses representing Blue Cross & Blue Shield during the first four months of this year.
Lobbyists’ reported expenses increased by about $140,000 in the 2013 session after dropping by about $440,000 in 2011 from 2009.
Lobbyists reported spending about $1 million during the first four months of this year, which could increase if more of them disclose expenses that weren’t previously reported.
Arkansas State University System lobbyist Robert Evans reported spending $1,250 on a Jan. 15 legislative reception at the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock and stated that the Jonesboro Regional Chamber of Commerce shared in paying for the reception.
But chamber of commerce officials didn’t disclose such spending on a lobbyist report.
Asked why it didn’t report its expenses on a lobbyist report, chamber President and Chief Executive Officer Mark Young replied in an e-mail that the chamber “as the host of a reception for the Arkansas General Assembly has not historically reported the expenditures for this social event, which is publicized and known to the local media.”
If a chamber of commerce spends more than $400 on an event and communicates with lawmakers to influence legislation, Sloan said, he would advise it to register as a lobbyist and report its expenses for the event.
Young said Friday in an e-mail that, “We are currently in contact with the Commission to assist us in determining reporting requirements. Once a determination has been made we will proceedaccordingly.”
Former Rep. Bruce Hawkins, D-Morrilton, who founded the lobbying firm DBH Management Consultants, said his firm mistakenly reported spending $9,342 on entertainment for one of its clients, the Conway County Legal Beverage Association, after the Democrat-Gazette raised questions about the expenditure.
Hawkins said his wife mistakenly reported three months of payments to the lobbying firm rather than one month’s worth of expenses totaling $4,089 for meals and entertainment. His lobbying firm amended its report Friday to reflect that.
After revising its report, DBH Management Consultants claimed lobbying expenses for all of its clients totaling $28,347 during the first four months of this year.
Rodney Baker, a lobbyist for the Arkansas Farm Bureau, reported spending the third-largest amount among lobbyists during the first four months of this year: $32,179.
Half of that money was reportedly spent on printing and postage. That’s because the Farm Bureau sends out a weekly report about legislation to a few thousand of its leaders in the counties, he said.
“We don’t do a lot of individual dining at night” to lobby lawmakers because groups always are sponsoring group events for lawmakers on most evenings, Baker said.
During the past several years, some lobbyists have said it’s more effective to hold “special events” to get the ears of more lawmakers.
A special event is “a planned activity where a specific government body or identifiable groups of public servants are invited” and include parties, dinners, athletic events, entertainment and charity events, the Ethics Commission said. Lobbyists aren’t required to revealwhich lawmakers attend, only to report their expenses on a group basis.
State Rep. Warwick Sabin, D-Little Rock, is the sponsor of a proposed constitutional amendment that would bar lobbyists from buying meals or drinks for only one or a few lawmakers at one time. He said “we are trying to prohibit any appearance or reality of a quid pro quo.”
The proposed amendment would allow lobbyists to pay for group events - such luncheon policy briefings - for a legislative committee, a caucus, or members of the House or Senate because that “seemed legitimate,” he said.
If voters approve the proposed amendment, Sabin said, it may lead to an increase in lobbyist-paid group events for lawmakers.
“There would be less individual meals because it would be illegal and unconstitutional,” he said.
But lobbyist Julie Mullenix said she worries that the proposed amendment would make lobbying more costly.
“You have to be prepared for 135 [lawmakers], and it’s more expensive,” she said in contrast to the smaller-group approach. She stopped short of declaring her opposition to the proposed amendment.
The proposed amendment also would prohibit direct political contributions from corporations and unions, delay lawmakers’ ability to become lobbyists for two years after they leave office; and create an independent citizens commission that would set salaries for lawmakers and other elected officials. It also would loosen term limits, allowing lawmakers to serve a total of 16 years in either chamber. Now, lawmakers are limited to three two-year terms in the House and two four-year terms in the Senate - although once each-decade redistricting can result in some senators serving 10 years.