You are here

Lobbyists turn on the juice

Sunday, May 2, 1999 (All day)
Citation: 
0

Nobody knows how to throw a party like the electric industry -- especially for lawmakers.

From Las Vegas golf outings and January's $21,500 Electric Swamp Boogie, to quiet dinners and chartered flights for Razorback ballgames, the electric industry pulled out the stops to court legislators in the battle over deregulation.

The final tab? At least $515,783.95 in wining, dining, partying, advertising and gift-giving over the past 15 months, plus $24,800 in 1998 campaign contributions given to lawmakers on key legislative committees, an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette analysis shows. And that doesn't include money spent by major industrial energy users, who also lobbied hard for deregulation.

Most of the spending came in just the first three months of this year's legislative session. The stakes were high, after all. Utilities saw promise and pitfalls in the details of legislation opening the consumer electric market to competition. They began preparing themselves -- and legislators -- as much as a year before the session began. Entergy Inc. beefed up its lobbying corps, from two or three in ordinary years to eight.

The state's electric cooperatives spent the most by far -- at least $375,487, according to state records. But excluding more than $308,000 spent on a statewide advertising blitz, the co-ops spent just $66,847 -- a third of it on a single party. Entergy spent double that, or $138,560. Southwestern Electric Power Co. spent about $55,410.

COSTLY COMPROMISE

Lobbying goes hand-in-hand with late-20th-century American government. Paid to hobnob with legislators, lobbyists often pick up the tab for trips, meals, gifts and more. They must work within the confines of ethics laws -- rules that good-government advocates consider too lenient. Legislators, lobbyists and scholars call it the American tradition of interest-group politics. Good-government activists call it a few steps shy of legal graft.

"Whether it's in Congress or most of the state legislatures, if a powerful, moneyed and deep-pocketed industry sets out to achieve something, they usually get it," said Bill Hogan, director of investigative projects for the nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity in Washington, which studies ethics and government. "The only party that gets short-changed is the public."

So what did the electric industry's spending achieve in Arkansas?

Not much, lobbyists and legislators say. Both main camps say they compromised to ensure that deregulation passed this session. Lawmakers say they stood firm for consumer protection, regardless of the dinners they ate, shows they attended and gifts they received. All say they're content with the bill that became Act 1557.

To be sure, lobbying drove much of the deregulation debate, especially early in the session, some said. Many lawmakers seemed to take the bill "on faith," said Carmie L. Henry, a co-op lobbyist who worked under federal ethics rules for 21 years as an aide to three U.S. senators. "There aren't a great deal of legislators who have read [the bill] or know a great deal about it."

That may be because few constituents seemed to care about the issue, possibly because of scant press coverage, said Rep. Terry Smith, D-Hot Springs, a legislator since 1995. It's no reason to worry, however.

"Individuals who have never been around the Legislature probably think all lobbyists do is try to gain favors and get votes through favoritism, but that's not the way I look at it," Smith said. Rather, lobbyists "play a vital role in the legislative process," providing information to legislators on complex topics.

Lobbyists couldn't agree more.

"Frankly, there is a misconception about what a lobbyist does," said Entergy's Jim Pickens, who spent about a third of the company's $34,847 lobbying costs for the first three months of this year.

"I don't think a tuna-fish sandwich and a cup of tea is going to buy me any particular votes," Pickens said. "It's not really about dollars and cents. It's about education and trust."

EFFECTIVE SPENDING

"That's ridiculous," said Hogan, of the Center for Public Integrity. Corporations don't spend money for nothing, and lobbyists are very selective. As a lobbyist, "my call is going to get answered before your call, and that lawmaker is going to treat me differently than he is going to treat you," he said.

"They're only trying to educate the people who write the rules under which they play," Hogan said. "Call me an absolutist, but I think it's improper even for a lawmaker to accept an iced tea and a tuna sandwich from lobbyists."

Campaign contributions play a role, too, even if the $24,800 contributed by electric-utility interests doesn't sound like a lot, Hogan said. It can mean a lot in a close race, or to unopposed candidates.

Some Arkansas legislators pay vehicle leases, cell-phone bills and meal tabs with campaign funds, a common practice nationwide. Such expenses aren't always just campaign-related, however. "Most lawmakers view their campaign funds as an expense account," Hogan said.

Scott Trotter sees both sides of the issue. He has to -- he registered this session as a lobbyist for Entergy, and for Common Cause, a national open-government group that has criticized corporate lobbying and political action committees. This time, he said, the dueling interests led to a well-crafted bill, in part because of the competition among lobbyists.

Lobbyists do educate lawmakers, but even when business isn't discussed, their wining and dining foster amiable relationships that help their ultimate goals: better access to lawmakers and the chance to influence them.

"It's clear that the lobbyists who participate tend to have improved access to the members of the general assembly," Trotter said. "Any interest that either cannot afford to pay a lobbyist or can't pay them very much is clearly at a disadvantage."

MUSIC, FOOD AND ACCESS

It all adds up to a lot of soft drinks, chicken wings and steak dinners.

Lobbyists say they discussed other issues with state legislators periodically over the past 15 months, but deregulation dominated their attention, whether in Arkansas or elsewhere.

When some Arkansas lawmakers went to Las Vegas for the National Conference of State Legislatures' annual meeting in July, for example, Entergy's Cecil Alexander followed. In three days, he spent more than $2,800 on golf outings, a show and dinner for "Arkansas legislators and business associates," state records show.

Pickens was there for Entergy, too, spending $739.03 for one Ruth's Chris Steak H0ouse dinner, $906.74 for another at the Coyote Cafe -- $2,655 in all during the conference. Some nights, Entergy's lobbyists picked up several dinner tabs at different restaurants.

In January, Henry, of the Arkansas Electric Cooperatives Inc., spent $21,593 on the Electric Swamp Boogie, a night of Cajun food and music. "It's just a mingling opportunity," said Sen. Jim Argue, D-Little Rock, an eight-year legislative veteran, who attended. "The band was so loud, you really couldn't accomplish much business."

Only part of lobbyists' expenses goes to parties, of course. Other settings are more intimate, especially because complex topics such as deregulation take time to explain, lobbyists said. Getting to know the outsize freshman class brought in by term limits also meant a busier session than usual, some said.

For one thing, Arkansas legislators lack the offices that many other states give lawmakers, said Paul N. Means, who lobbies for Entergy Inc. here and elsewhere.

"There's no place for a legislator to sit down and visit with constituents or someone," other than the Capitol halls or a restaurant, said Means, who played host to a $1,206 meal for 30 at Sir Loin's Inn in March. "You can visit and have dinner quietly."

Dinner wasn't the only option for unwinding, though. Lawmakers weary after a long day at the Capitol could retire to Entergy's hospitality room for a soft drink -- or something stronger -- to accompany chips, chicken wings, "any sort of reception-type food," said Pickens, who spent more than $1,070 on one occasion to stock the Capitol Square Apartments suite in February. One thing he said lawmakers didn't get was a lecture.

"Frankly, very little lobbying goes on at a hospitality suite," Pickens said. "That legislator has had about all he wants at the end of a particular day."

As a first-time legislator, Rep. Michael Creekmore, D-Little Rock, said he was surprised at how little lobbying went on at any of the functions he attended. "I thought you would get at least a two-minute slant of the issue," he said. "None of the issues came up at any of them."

PERSONAL FAVORS

Sometimes, lobbying becomes more personal than a dinner party.

In late January, Henry, the co-op lobbyist, approached freshman Rep. Dean Elliott, R-Maumelle, in Little Rock. Did he want to see the Razorbacks play Rhode Island's Providence College in Fayetteville? Elliott did, and he asked Creekmore to join them; both took their wives. The Razorbacks stomped the Friars, 118-79. Henry picked up the $528.56 tab.

"It was a great game," Elliott said, but deregulation never came up.

Argue, the Little Rock state senator, also went to a basketball game with Henry, in January 1998. Then, too, Henry paid, about $121, his reports show.

Carmie [Henry] drove," said Argue, who attends the same church as the lobbyist and sometimes dines with him socially. The conversation turned to deregulation on the drive. "It was a helpful discussion for me, because deregulation was a murky issue at that point," Argue said.

For Smith, the Hot Springs representative, it was a painting that helped make a political point.

Smith bought the print at a Hot Springs art benefit. It showed an older man in overalls with two mules -- wearing an Arkansas Electric Cooperatives cap, the legislator said. He accepted Henry's offer to have it framed. Henry spent $185.39.

Smith later used the painting in a House deregulation hearing. "I said, 'I see a lot of people in blue suits and red ties in this committee room,' " Smith remembered last week. " 'But I see nobody in a pair of overalls who are representing the electric ratepayers back home.' "

Smith and Henry also dined together on Henry's money twice in March, for about $100 total. "I probably ate some co-op food," Smith said. "I ate some Entergy food. It doesn't make any difference as far as my vote will go."

Henry said he was working hard to make up for lost time: With well-known and experienced lobbyists, Entergy had the legislative advantage. "I felt like I was behind the 8-ball," Henry said. "If you don't get to know [legislators], you don't really have much of a chance to be heard down the line."

Sometimes lawmakers suggest lobbyist spending. In April 1998, Rep. Lisa Ferrell, a third-term Democrat from Little Rock, attended a $2,500 leadership conference for women in Washington. Entergy's Alexander paid $650 of the costs at her request, both said, though the conference had nothing to do with utilities.

But Ferrell didn't alter her position because of the dinner or tuition funds, she said. "I can't point to a circumstance where I can say to you, Legislator X voted this way because they went to dinner with [Lobbyist] Y," but she says she still supports stricter lobbying regulations.

(One of three representatives who did not vote for the deregulation bill, Ferrell abstained because a law-firm client had an interest in the outcome.)

Like Ferrell, many legislators said their deregulation votes were unrelated to the food they ate or events they attended. "You'd be surprised how many dinners you go to with a lobbyist, and the next day you vote against their bill," said Creekmore, the Little Rock representative.

Such arguments are thin, said the Center for Public Integrity's Hogan. Legislators may not consciously change their votes, but successful lobbyists do influence lawmakers. That's why so many other professions, including law and civil service, ban the gift-taking legislators routinely engage in.

"[Legislators] are the only people in the world who aren't supposed to be affected by free gifts," he said. "It's just unbelievable." Editor's Note: Those paid to lobby state legislators must file monthly reports listing a variety of expenses with the secretary of state's office. Because lobbying records and many campaign-finance records are not computerized -- many are handwritten -- the total spent on electric-industry lobbying is impossible to say with certainty. In addition, campaign-contribution documents filed with the secretary of state's office are often vague, making it difficult to tell individual contributions from those given by corporate political action committees, whose donation records are kept electronically. Furthermore, some candidate reports improperly omit donors' occupations, addresses and donation dates. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette 's analysis includes only campaign contributions given by registered political action committees. Furthermore, many 1999 campaign contributions and the salaries of the lobbyists themselves were also excluded, as were April 1999 lobbying expenditures, which were not yet available.