Recent scandals, runaway spending and ongoing fiscal crises have all boosted interest in lobbying. Washington, D.C., draws much of the new interest, but states, including Maryland, also deserve scrutiny.
According to "State-Level Lobbying and Taxpayers: How Much Do We Really Know?" — our recent report for the Pacific Research Institute — Maryland ranked a disappointing 46th among the states in lobbying transparency. This study examined both state lobbying disclosure laws and accessibility to the disclosed information.
In terms of lobbying disclosure laws, Maryland ranked 47th. In all, 37 different aspects of Maryland's lobbying laws were examined, including the breadth of registration for lobbying activities, the degree of reporting required, and exemptions for government. Maryland's laws achieved only 13 of the 37 components analyzed.
The state's disclosure laws clearly need to be broadened and deepened — but that alone will not be sufficient.
"State-Level Lobbying and Taxpayers" also looked at the accessibility of the information for interested citizens. After all, it's not enough to simply require lobbying activities to be disclosed. The information must be accessible to legislators, concerned citizens and journalists in a timely and clear manner. A total of 22 components of accessibility were analyzed, including whether current and historical data were available, and their level of detail.
The study also assessed how users could sort and analyze data by different criteria, and rated the accessibility of the website. Maryland received a score of 9.2 out of the 22 criteria, ranking it in the middle of the pack: 26th in the nation. But like other states, the problems in Maryland go beyond disclosure and accessibility.
Maryland does not subject all lobbying to the same standards. Some lobbying is conducted and funded by private interests, while other lobbying is done by governments. The state requires individuals in the private sector to register and report their lobbying activities but exempts certain people in the public sector, even though they pursue the same lobbying activities — with taxpayers footing the bill.
For example, Maryland's lobbying laws exempt 10 of the 11 categories of potential participants from registering and reporting, including the executive branch, the legislative branch, government agencies and public entities. Similarly, Maryland exempts government agencies and public officials from lobbying regulations imposed on private-sector organizations and individuals. And government agencies are not subject to the same disclosure requirements as either private sector lobbyists or principals.
State-level lobbying is not merely a theoretical matter. Key legislation hangs in the balance, and a great deal of money is involved. Figures from Maryland's State Ethics Commission show that companies and special-interest groups spent about $13.9 million on lobbying during a six-month period in 2009. This is not exactly chump change, and more than enough to warrant attention from those seeking reform.
Recent scandals such as those involving Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff and the corrupt dealings with Indian gaming operations have moved some to call for a prohibition of lobbying, but that approach is misguided. As long as state governments tax, spend and regulate, there will be a legitimate need for lobbying. At the same time, taxpayers need to know what legislators are doing with their hard-earned money.
This calls for transparency in lobbying, and data that are easily accessible to all. Just as important, double standards are not acceptable. Lobbying by state governments and their many agencies should be subject to the same regulatory standards as lobbying by the private sector. Governments can use taxpayer dollars to finance advocacy for viewpoints with which taxpayers often disagree. That reality increases the need for transparency.
Like many other states, Maryland could stand some improvement on all counts, particularly its disclosure laws. Such reform will improve the behavior of lobbyists and enforce greater discipline on the lobbying process. If Maryland wants better government, and to set an example for other states, it should expand transparency and enforce a single standard for all lobbying activity.
Jason Clemens (email@example.com) is the director of research at the Pacific Research Institute (www.pacificresearch.org) and a co-author with Julie Kaszton (firstname.lastname@example.org), PRI policy fellow, of "State-Level Lobbying and Taxpayers."