Recent scandals, runaway spending and ongoing fiscal crises have all heightened the public’s interest in lobbying. Most of the new interest, however, is focused on Washington, D.C. Not much has trickled down to the states that need it, such as Alabama.
Overall, Alabama ranked a dismal 43rd among the states for its lobbying transparency, receiving a score of 41.9 percent, according to “State-Level Lobbying and Taxpayers.” This recent study examined both state lobbying disclosure laws and accessibility to the disclosed information.
In terms of lobbying disclosure laws, Alabama ranked 36th with a score of 51.4 percent. In all, 37 different aspects of Alabama’s lobbying laws were examined, including the breadth of registration for lobbying activities, the degree of reporting required and exemptions for government. Alabama’s laws achieved only 19 of the 37 components analyzed. The state’s disclosure laws need to be broadened and deepened, but that alone is not sufficient.
“State-level Lobbying and Taxpayers” also looked at the accessibility of the information for interested citizens. After all, it’s not enough simply to require lobbying activities to be disclosed. The information must be accessible to interested citizens, journalists and policy-makers 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 Web site. Alabama received a score of 7.1 out of the 22 criteria, ranking it 37th in the nation, but the state’s problems go beyond disclosure and accessibility.
Like other states, Alabama does not subject all lobbying to the same standards. Some lobbying is conducted and funded by private interests. 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, Alabama exempts the legislative branch, government agencies and other public entities from registering for lobbying activity. In addition, like so many other state lobbying laws, Alabama even fails to provide a clear definition of what constitutes a public entity.
State-level lobbying is not theoretical, nor merely a subject for argument. Key legislation hangs in the balance, and a great deal of money is involved. To make matters worse, the Alabama state Web site provides no information on the aggregate amount of money spent on lobbying each year. Such information would prove useful to legislators in pursuit of reform. Recent scandals have moved some to call for 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. The need for transparency is especially apparent because governments can use taxpayer dollars to finance advocacy for viewpoints with which taxpayers often disagree.
Like many other states, Alabama could stand improvement on all counts, particularly its disclosure laws. Such reform will improve the behavior of lobbyists and enforce greater discipline on the lobbying process. More transparency, and a single standard, will also make for better government in Alabama and across the nation.
Jason Clemens is the director of research at the Pacific Research Institute. Julie Kaszton is a policy fellow with the Pacific Research Institute. Web site: www.pacificresearch.org.