HARRISBURG -- A proposed state fee increase for lobbyists -- from $200 to $700 -- has Harrisburg lobbyists in an uproar, with numerous nonprofit groups saying the increase will hurt their ability to discuss policy with lawmakers and open government advocates concerned it could lead to less lobbying transparency.
A proposal by the Department of State would increase the biennial fee paid by registered lobbyists from $200 to $700. State officials say the increase is needed to maintain an online database of lobbyists and defray other costs of administering the lobbyist disclosure act.
The department's goal is "to relieve as much of the burden on taxpayers as possible," said Ron Ruman, an agency spokesman.
For the 2013-14 registration period, the department projects it will spend about $1.7 million to administer the act, while generating approximately $650,000 from the registration fees, according to figures submitted to the state's Independent Regulatory Review Commission. The commission reviews state regulations to ensure they are in the public interest.
The commission has urged the Department of State to meet with those who would be impacted by the increase if it moves forward with the proposal.
The fee and registration requirement applies to lobbyists who spend $2,500 per quarter or more. The fee has previously been increased once, for the 2011-12 registration period from $100 to $200; the lobbyist disclosure act was passed in 2006.
The Pennsylvania Association for Government Relations -- the professional association for lobbyists in Pennsylvania -- opposes the increase, and said in a letter it would make the state's registration fee among the most expensive in the nation, if enacted.
The increase also is vigorously opposed by many nonprofits that lobby in the Capitol.
"A 250 percent fee increase is burdensome and cost-prohibitive for small organizations such as ours," wrote Joan Benso, president and CEO of PA Partnerships for Children, which advocates for children's health and early education issues.
The Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania, in a letter opposing the increase, said at any given time it has eight to 10 employees registered as lobbyists.
"DNR, like most if not all advocacy groups, does not have paying clients to whom it can pass on this increased cost, and thus this large fee increase will have to be absorbed, which will leave fewer dollars to provide vital services for people with disabilities."
Forty states have a lobbyist registration fee. However, the fees vary greatly, running from a $10 one-time charge for lobbyists in Missouri to $1,000 per year "for executive and legislative agents" and $100 per year for employers in Massachusetts. Several states, such as Indiana and Texas, charge a lower fee for nonprofits.
Department of State estimates for the 2013-14 registration period show 1,377 lobbyists, 132 lobbying firms and 1,649 principals (the clients who hire lobbyists) will register with the department.
The proposed increase was blasted by Drew Crompton, who was intimately involved in crafting the 2006 disclosure law, and who serves as chief of staff for Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson.
Mr. Crompton criticized the $1.7 million the Department of State said it spends to administer the disclosures as "in part due to the department's incompetency over the years."
"The department has selected vendors to build the electronic system for the registering and reporting which have led to overruns in cost and significant delays. In fact, the version currently being utilized is still flooded with errors and confusing data ... six years later," he said.
"I cannot emphasize enough the inept workmanship that has occurred over the years in the development of the electronic interface."
Watchdog group Common Cause Pennsylvania, which pushed for the lobbyist registration act, is also "vehemently opposed" to the increase, said Barry Kauffman, the group's executive director.
Mr. Kauffman believes the increase could force some small groups not to lobby and would empower bigger "super lobbyists." Furthermore, it could cause some lobbyists to simply not register, he said.
"The public needs to understand who is backing various issues and how much they're spending to do it," Mr. Kauffman said.
Kate Giammarise: email@example.com, 717-787-4254 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.