You have right to know special interests


By Steve Key

Hello, my name is Steve, and I’m a lobbyist (also a lawyer and a former journalist).

The Hoosier State Press Association’s report to the Indiana Lobby Registration Commission for 2012 shows expenditures of $25,374.

Meal costs for our annual legislative luncheon, where state senators and representatives are invited to spend an hour with Indiana newspaper publishers attending our annual meeting, accounts for $2,680 of that total.

Most of the rest goes to salary expense allocated to our lobbying efforts for two legislative assistants (law school students) and myself.

I make these disclosures because I want to talk about the legislative process. Readers can determine whether my motives are clouded by my involvement in the process.

Why now? The Indianapolis Star columnist Matt Tully recently wrote about conflicts of interest that arise with Indiana’s part-time legislature. His column, as have similar stories by reporters around the state in past years, has stirred reactions from legislators and lobbyists in the Statehouse.

While I may not agree with all inferences made in stories critical of the state’s legislative process, I’ll always defend the right of the press to raise questions.

In the latest example, I think it’s good to ask whether conflicts of interest merit closer monitoring to assure the public that the process isn’t skewed to special interests to the detriment of good public policy.

Personally, I favor a citizen legislature.

I prefer legislators who depend on other means to make a living rather than the professional legislators in some states. I think the chances are greater that a part-time legislator will be more concerned with public policy questions than re-election issues.

Part-time legislators can come with baggage in the form of conflicts of interest, but expertise in a field isn’t necessarily a bad thing for lawmakers.

It makes sense that someone with an insurance background is assigned to a committee dealing with insurance matters because he or she will better understand how legislative sessions may create unintended consequences for both ratepayers and insurers.

Based on election campaigns, where “career politicians” are attacked for not representing voters, Hoosiers apparently want representatives who can identify with them, someone who shares their concerns as an entrepreneur, employee, parent, retiree, etc.

I don’t ignore problems that conflicts of interest create.

The system isn’t perfect, and state Senate and House leadership should strive to monitor legislator actions and draw clear lines so Hoosiers are confident that good public policy, not special interests, win the day.

It’s in the General Assembly’s best interest that potential conflicts of interest are transparent to the public.

Are reporting requirements, either for lobbyists or legislators, strong enough to indicate a relationship that should concern voters?

Should leadership draw a line that would preclude a legislator from carrying a bill if the outcome is tied too directly to that legislator’s own financial or professional interests?

At one time, HSPA purposely avoided asking then-Indianapolis Recorder publisher and state Rep. Carolene Mays from carrying legislation the association was pushing. The same goes now with state Sen. Phil Boots, who has ownership stake in newspapers in Crawfordsville and Noblesville.

That doesn’t mean we wouldn’t urge Boots to argue our point in a Republican Senate caucus on a particular bill of interest, just as we would other legislators that we identify as friends of public access or the newspaper industry.

That’s lobbying.

Should leadership discourage committee members or chairmen from soliciting campaign contributions from those who will be directly impacted by that committee’s work?

It would avoid a pay-to-play perception.

I recall a story from a lobbyist with the Illinois legislature. He recounted that when a lobbyist called on a certain legislator, the administrative assistant would check a list of contributors.

If you weren’t on the list, you didn’t get an audience with the legislator.

I’ve never heard that story applied to a Hoosier legislator in the 21 legislative sessions I’ve worked.

Given the choice, I favor a part-time legislature with the transparency needed to assure Hoosiers that conflicts of interest have been identified and have proper counter-balances to protect citizens.

Steve Key is executive director and general counsel for HSPA.