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LOBBYISTS WINE, DINE LEGISLATORS FOR FAVORS

This is the third installment in a series examining the cycle of

 

influence in the state

Legislature - how campaign contributions,

 

lobbyist spending and personal financial interests

affect legislation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  • finn@wvgazette.com
  •  

     

    The care and feeding of the West Virginia Legislature does not come

     

    cheap.

     

     

    In the past five years, lobbyists have spent more than $1

     

    million on West Virginia's government

    officials for meals, receptions

     

    and campaign contributions, according to a computer-assisted

    analysis

     

    of lobbyist disclosure forms. Most of that spending goes to state

     

    legislators.

     

     

    That money spent on meals, gifts and receptions does not buy votes

     

    directly, said the Rev.

    Nathan Wilson, lobbyist for the West Virginia

     

    Council of Churches. "But it gets lobbyists into

    the

     

    legislator's office," he said. "It buys them access."

     

     

    Some special-interest groups may have bought themselves more access

     

    than others. Since 1996,

    gambling lobbyists spent more than

     

    $220,000. That is 66 times as much as anti-gambling

    lobbyists,

     

    who spent approximately $3,333.

     

     

    State legislators are asked to be experts in everything. One

     

    day, they are debating electricity

    deregulation, the next, whether to

     

    tax barroom video poker machines. When they don't know much

    about an

     

    issue, they look for someone nearby who does. Very often, that person is a

     

    lobbyist.

     

     

    Larry Swann is a former legislator from Doddridge County who now

     

    lobbies in several issue

    areas, including gambling, health and

     

    utilities. Swann spent the second-highest amount on

    meals, receptions

     

    and gifts of any lobbyist since 1996, more than $37,000.

     

     

    Swann helped sponsor receptions for legislators at the

     

    Charleston Marriott, Embassy Suites and

    Edgewood Country Club.

     

     

    The money he spends on meals and receptions is for "relationship

     

    building" between lobbyists,

    the clients and legislators,

     

    Swann said.

     

     

    "You chat with people about baseball or football," he said. "There's

     

  • ot a lot of talking about

    issues at those venues."

  •  

     

    Wilson's group also sponsors a legislative reception, but the

     

  • o-frills, no-alcohol event costs

    only about $300.

  •  

     

    "Legislators should be more in touch with their constituents.

     

    But spending $10,000 to achieve

    that goal is a farce," Wilson said.

     

     

    Swann said that the meals and receptions do not give his clients an

     

    unfair advantage, or take

    away from the ability of the average citizen

     

    to contact their legislature.

     

     

    "The vast majority of legislators are open-minded and willing to

     

    listen to all sides," Swann

    said.

     

     

    But an environmental lobbyist thinks those personal relationships pay

     

    off when legislators need

    advice about a bill. Rick Eades, with

     

    the West Virginia Environmental Council, said one story

    shows the

     

    difference in access that money can buy.

     

     

    Eades remembers standing outside the Senate Finance Committee minutes

     

    before they took up a

    bill dealing with mountaintop removal. A door to

     

    a side room opened, and he saw several

    legislators huddled

     

    around a prominent coal lobbyist with a notebook in his hand.

     

     

    "It was like football players around their coach," he said. "He was

     

    holding court."

     

     

    When Eades approached the group, he said they drifted away. He

     

    pidgeonholed one senator. "I

    told him that we have opinions on this

     

    issue too, but I only got 30 seconds with him," he said.

     

     

    Coal, Oil and Gas, and Timber lobbyists have spent more than

     

    $175,000 in the last five years,

    while environmental lobbyists

     

  • pent approximately $1,200.
  •  

     

    John Hodges and Swann are first and second in lobbyist spending since

     

    1996. Rounding out the

    top five are: Michael Herron, Independent Oil

     

    and Gas Association of W.Va., $32,127; Jim Bowen,

    AFL-CIO, $29,764; and

     

    Nelson Robinson, gambling, transportation and other business

     

    groups,

    $26,773.

     

     

    Lobbyists spend money on more than just meals and receptions.

     

    Some of the largest lobbyists

    give campaign contributions to

     

    candidates as well. For example, the biggest spending lobbyist,

    Hodges,

     

    reported giving $5,300 in campaign contributions to West Virginia

     

    candidates since Jan.

    1. Hodges spent more than $55,000 lobbying for

     

    gambling, tobacco and business interests since

    1996. Swann gave $1,550

     

    in campaign contributions in the same period.

     

     

    "How can they afford these large campaign contributions?" said Norm

     

    Steenstra, a lobbyist

    himself for Citizens Action Group, a nonprofit

     

    organization in Charleston that works on various

    reform issues. "What

     

    is Larry Swann making? We don't know."

     

     

    Other states require lobbyists to disclose much more information

     

    than West Virginia.

     

     

    For example, Maryland asks each group that lobbies its legislature to

     

    reveal the total amount

    it spends for salaries, overhead and other

     

    expenses - not just meals and gifts.

     

     

    Maryland also asks for lobbyist salaries - the top salary is more than

     

    $1 million, while 79

    lobbyists get more than $50,000 for their

     

    efforts.

     

     

    Steenstra calls for similar disclosure of the total spending of

     

    lobbyists in West Virginia.

     

     

    In the end, nothing short of massive public action can challenge the

     

    influence of big-spending

    lobbyists.

     

     

    "It will take a groundswell of citizen involvement to change things,"

     

    he said.

     

     

    "Come November, citizens should vote for those legislators who

     

    are protecting the interests of

    all the people."

     

     

    To contact staff writer Scott Finn, use e-mail or call 357-4323.

     

     


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