In 2008, corporations spent more than $3 million to hire lobbyists to protect their interests at the Rhode Island State House. While budget deficits, a Medicaid waiver, and public-employee pensions dominate the news, corporate lobbyists are supporting or opposing hundreds of bills that could benefit or damage their companies' bottom lines. And thanks to a loophole in the lobbying disclosure law and a lengthy process for pursuing those who violate reporting laws, lobbyists' activities can be hard for the public to track.
Last year, the insurance industry was the biggest spender on lobbyists, dedicating more than three-quarters of a million dollars to getting its way, according to a Phoenix review of lobbying disclosure reports. In addition, the gambling, banking and finance, hospital, drug, and energy industries each spent more than $250,000 to hire lobbyists, according to the Phoenix compilation.
Notably absent from the list of big spenders, though certainly a force on Smith Hill, is the Rhode Island labor movement. Unions reported spending about $100,000 on lobbying. AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer George Nee says union expenses are comparatively low because most unions use staff and members to lobby. Union staff salaries, he explains, "are considerably less" than those of lawyers and corporate staff.
In addition to reporting their expenditures, lobby groups must file monthly and annual reports with Secretary of State Ralph Mollis, detailing their activities. The reports are available online, but many provide little information.
Public concerns about lobbying have focused on financial ties between legislators and lobbyists. In January, the Providence Journal reported that lobby groups including Rhode Island Housing, the Laborers' International Union, and Newport Grand failed to report their well-known financial links with state legislators. The success of lobbying groups in defending their interests, often at the expense of the public interest, receives far less attention, however. Part of the problem is that the law allows lobbyists and their clients to file vague reports.
Some lobby groups, like the Rhode Island Bankers Association, the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers, and ExxonMobil, report the bill numbers they monitor and whether they support or oppose each one. Most groups, however, use a lobbying law provision that allows them to report their interest in general subject areas, not specific bills. Some major interests only needed one word to describe their activities at the State House. The Rhode Island AFL-CIO, for example, reported that its three lobbyists were concerned with "Labor," while National Grid related that its six lobbyists monitored legislation on "Energy." Community Financial Services of America reported its interest in "Financial Services."
Some lobbyists say reporting bill numbers would be burdensome, but Massachusetts and Maine require just that. Maine even requires lobbyists to report the nature of their work, like "increase fishing license fees," if legislation does not yet have a number, according to PAC, party, and lobbyist registrar Jeremy Brown.
"It would be unwieldy to report on every one," Common Cause Rhode Island executive director John Marion said initially. But after some thought, he changed his mind, saying, "Because our position is more disclosure is better for government . . . yes, that would be something Common Cause would support."