Lobby overcharge: The state must weigh the impact on disclosure

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For Pennsylvanians with a low opinion of political lobbyists, no added burden put on the professional pleaders can be too high. But the proposed jump in the state's lobbyist registration fee is so steep that -- forget the lobbyists -- it could hurt the public.

Since the Legislature passed the lobbyist disclosure act in 2006, Pennsylvania has tried to shine a light and tally the spending on efforts by special interests to have their way with lawmakers, department heads and other public employees.

In 2012, according to a June report by the Department of State, lobbyists spent $1.6 million on gifts, hospitality, transportation and lodging for state officials or employees in the course of lobbying. The top five issues on which they were trying to influence state decision makers were: health care, the state budget, energy, taxation and Medicaid/Medicare. No surprise there.

To help pay for administration of the law, which requires financial reports and other disclosures, lobbyists who spend $2,500 or more per quarter are required not only to register with the state but also to pay a biennial registration fee. For 2013-2014, the department estimates that 1,377 lobbyists, 132 lobbying firms and 1,649 principals (those who hire lobbyists) will register. The fee was initially $100, then it was raised to $200. Now the department wants to push it to $700, a move that concerns small nonprofits and other low-budget lobbyists.

The Post-Gazette's Kate Giammarise reported Monday that the department expects to spend $1.7 million over two years to administer the act, which will be partly covered by an anticipated $650,000 in registration fees.

Although it's laudable for the state to try to have lobbyists, without taxpayer help, pay the costs of the disclosure law, it could be counterproductive for those who stand to benefit from the disclosures -- all Pennsylvanians. If lobbyists suddenly hit by a 250 percent fee increase decide to avoid registration and operate under the radar, the public loses. If small-organization lobbyists with limited budgets stop lobbying and leave their subject areas to the pressure wielded by deep-pocketed lobbyists, the public loses.

This is not an argument for the state to go easy on lobbyists, but to keep the broader concern -- public disclosure -- in perspective. Pennsylvania could charge one of the highest lobbying fees in the nation and do itself the greatest disservice.

opinion_editorials


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