As Illinois struggles with deficits and a failing economy, it is critical to understand the behind-the-scenes lobbying that fuels the state’s political decision-making. That calls for more transparency in Springfield, but on this issue, Illinois’ record is decidedly mixed.
According to State-Level Lobbying and Taxpayers, a recent study that examines lobbying disclosure laws and accessibility to the disclosed information at the state level, Illinois ranked 21st overall among the 50 states with a score of 54.7 percent. This is only slightly above the national average of 51.5 percent. Illinois’ performance could have been much stronger except for the state’s odd contrast.
The Prairie State is one of the nation’s leaders in requiring lobbying disclosure, the foundation for transparency. Illinois ranked sixth in the nation in terms of its lobbying disclosure laws. The study examined 37 different aspects of these laws. The analysis included the breadth of registration for lobbying activities, the degree of reporting required and exemptions for government.
Illinois received a score of 27 out of 37, or 73 percent, well above the national average of 59 percent. It’s not sufficient, however, simply to require lobbying activities to be disclosed. The information must be accessible to interested citizens, journalists and lawmakers in a timely and easy manner if it is to prove productive and useful. On that key issue, Illinois performs poorly.
State-Level Lobbying and Taxpayers analyzed 22 aspects of accessibility, including whether current and historical data was available, how detailed the data available was, whether users could sort and analyze data by different criteria, and the accessibility of the state’s website. Illinois received a dismal score of 8 out of the 22 (36 percent) criteria analyzed, ranking it 31st in the nation and below the national average for accessibility of 43.6 percent.
Illinois’ portal for lobbying information does not contain historical data that allows users to understand and analyze trends over time. Nor does it allow users easily to download information. In addition, Illinois’ portal included only four of 15 lobbying data variables, which included things like the name and location of lobbyists, expenditures, compensation, the source of funding and the sector within which the lobbying took place.
As Illinoisans reflect on their mixed performance, it’s worth noting the differential treatment states often accord private-sector lobbying compared to taxpayer-funded lobbying. Some lobbying is conducted and funded by private interests, and those players must register and report their lobbying activities. Other lobbying is conducted by government entities, and funded by taxpayers. To varying degrees, states exempt these public-sector players from the same scrutiny and regulation, even though they pursue the same lobbying activities.
Illinois, regrettably, does not subject all lobbying to the same standards. For instance, the state exempts government agencies and public entities from having to register and report lobbying activity, even when their activities are identical to private-sector lobbyists who face stringent regulations.
According to the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, local governments and public agencies alone spent more than $6 million in 2009 on professional lobbyists to influence Illinois state government. This money and the influence it buys affects legislation and government priorities for everyone in the state. That calls for an increase in transparency, the key to imposing discipline on special interests and their lobbying.
Illinois has a solid foundation for reform in its strong disclosure laws. The state should duplicate that performance in making information available to interested citizens in a timely, efficient and anonymous manner. Illinois should further review existing laws to ensure that public and private lobbying activities are treated the same. Such reforms would impose stronger discipline in lobbying, improve state government and vault Illinois to a leadership position in keeping with its exemplary disclosure laws.
Jason Clemens is the director of research at the Pacific Research Institute (www.pacificresearch.org) and a co-author with policy fellow Julie Kaszton of PRI’s State-Level Lobbying and Taxpayers.