In 2008, for the seventh straight year, lobbyists were confined to the basement of Gallup's annual "Honesty and Ethics" survey. As a trade, lobbyists were placed second-to-last on the trustworthiness scale, sandwiched right between car salesmen and telemarketers. It's a tough spot, but at least it's (cough, cough) an improvement. In 2007, lobbyists finished dead last.
You've got to hope Gov. Bobby Jindal is paying attention. He could use this piece of good news as one of his talking points during his next CNN interview. After all (wink, nudge), thanks to his ethics reforms, lobbyists are moving up in the world and can safely leave their foxholes.
Truth be told, Louisiana's top Republican might be better served saying nothing at all, because his crackdown on lobbyists' excesses is just beginning to take shape. And by most accounts, it's shaping up as less than spectacular.
The salad days of Louisiana lobbying began to unravel last year when lobbyists were capped at spending no more than $50 per meal wining and dining legislators. They also were prohibited from giving lawmakers free event tickets. On New Year's Day, another of Jindal's hallmark pieces of legislation went into effect: Lobbyists now have to avoid certain conflicts of interest and must publicly file financial reports each month beginning Feb. 15.
There's hasn't been much pushback from the lobbying community. Many are just sitting back, waiting to see how the process plays out.
Kevin Hayes, a Baton Rouge lobbyist who represents more than two dozen clients ranging from Walmart and Sprint to the Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Cable Television Association, says there isn't much else to do. Serious players knew that at least 19 other states had passed similar laws and it was only a matter of time before the Bayou State followed suit. "I think we'll hear more once people start filing and get acclimated to the new system," Hayes says. "But for a state that's looking to be more open, this is a good thing to do."
Hopes of bureaucratic failure might be another reason lobbyists are playing it cool. The Legislature passed only a loose framework last year that called on lobbyists to disclose detailed information about their clients, what they are paid and which lawmakers receive anything of economic value from them. The administrative side is supposed to be handled by the state Ethics Board, which hasn't met in nearly six months because of complications relating to another reform package pushed by Jindal last year. The board is charged with drawing up the required forms and making sure the entire process is electronic and accessible via the Internet.
During this transitional phase, another Capitol lobbyist with multiple clients says his brethren are going to push the board to weigh in on different portions of the new law through official opinions. That could take several weeks or months to obtain. Some doubt that the state can deliver on an interactive, online, searchable system for lobbyist reports, though the board is already doing the same for lawmakers.
Kathleen Allen, the board's deputy general counsel, says the online system is in place and ready to go, but the forms are still being developed. She adds that the board is prepared to meet on Jan. 28 and will be accepting requests for advisory opinions until Jan. 12 for that gathering. So far, Allen says, no inquiries have been filed regarding the new lobbyist disclosure requirements.
In particular, lobbyists are interested in official interpretations of "lobbying services," which must be disclosed, and "non-lobbying services," which do not have to be disclosed. This may become the loophole that allows lobbyists to hide their key clients from public view. "I think there will be some folks that try to use that as a shield," the Capitol lobbyist says.
It wouldn't be the lobbying bill's only loophole.
The original version of the legislation stated that no immediate family member of a lawmaker could register as a lobbyist unless that family member was a lobbyist at least one year before the legislator was elected. It was later revised to benefit Sen. John Smith, a Leesville Democrat and the father-in-law of Chris John, a former congressman and the top lobbyist for the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association. Jindal approved the change, despite campaigning for governor against such exceptions to the state's ethics laws.
Even if the state Ethics Board does deliver the new system in a timely manner and with no glitches, the lobbying reform tiger is unlikely to grow any teeth. The law demands that "no penalties shall be assessed against the (lobbyist)" if the offender corrects an inaccuracy or supplies missing information within 14 business days. Then again, depending on the severity of the transgression, another part of the law may call for penalties and/or fines.
Of course, come May 15, the hubbub will be greatly overshadowed by yet another Jindal reform measure. That's when Louisiana legislators have to file their own financial reports — and find their own ways around the law they just passed a year ago.
Jeremy Alford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.