NCSL Emerges as Lobbying Loophole as States Crack Down on Ethics Issues

Faced with their own local scandals and an increasingly frustrated public deeply upset with the depth of corruption in statehouses and Washington, D.C., lawmakers have responded by passing increasingly strict state ethics rules. These moves have been a good step, tightening gift rules and increasing transparency through public disclosure. But a new Wall Street Journal article reveals that despite the relative success of these measures, the annual meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) is quickly becoming a stomping grounds for lobbyists. Last week's annual meeting of the NCSL in Nashville drew 1,000 legislators -- and an additional 5,000 participants. Some of the 5,000 are legislative aides and non-profit staff. But many are special interest lobbyists eager to use the conference as an opportunity to connect with legislators while skirting various ethics rules.
Over the years, this free time has sparked a "tradition" at the convention, Mr. Rose said, of lobbyist-sponsored social events. At those events, called "state nights," industry representatives from as many as 40 states come to the host city and treat state delegations, their staffs and their families to a night on the town. Many such outings involve taking over restaurants to treat a legislative delegation; others include sports events, golf outings, and special tours.
Even with these popular events, legislators are mindful that the hometown crowds are leery of legislators spending too much time with well-heeled lobbyists. Sessions on the role of money in politics proved popular and ironic:
At the NCSL convention, a seminar on money and politics drew a standing-room-only crowd of 75 people. Tennessee Rep. Kim McMillan, who moderated the session, began it by playing a tape of the news coverage of last spring's "Tennessee Waltz" sting, which resulted in indictments of three legislators on influence-peddling charges. "I was shocked," Ms. McMillan said, adding the arrests prompted a special session this year and passage of a comprehensive ethics package. Some on the panel said the moves by various states were overkill. "Yes, money influences political decisions in the state legislatures," BellSouth Corp. lobbyist Pete Poynter told the group. "Is there anything wrong with taking somebody to dinner? I think we've let the press and others convince us there's a conspiracy."
Poor lobbyist -- his generosity is being prohibited. It's a rough life for Pete Poynter, being told he can't wine and dine the hardworking men and women of America's state legislatures. Somehow, though, we think he'll survive.