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Editorial: Lobbyists’ disclosure system needs work

If state legislators are treated to meals that cost less than $50, they don’t have to report them to the Public Disclosure Commission. Suffice it to say, there are a lot of $49 dining experiences in Olympia.

However, lobbyists are required to report these expenditures if they exceed $25, but the PDC’s system makes it difficult to do so. That, in turn, makes it nearly impossible to review these get-togethers.

As Lori Anderson, spokeswoman for the PDC, told the Associated Press, “You really have to want to find the information, and it takes a lot of time and effort.”

It’s a different story for campaign contributions, which can be quickly accessed on the PDC’s website. In fact, Washington government has repeatedly gotten high grades for putting information online that is in depth and user-friendly. But a recent AP and public radio investigation revealed that lobbyist reporting needs to be brought into the 21st century.

Some lobbyists fail to file reports, while others file late. Often, lobbyists don’t provide the necessary details. For instance, they’re supposed to itemize the bills, but often they just submit the total. That makes it impossible to know how much was spent on lawmakers.

Some lobbyists readily admitted that they weren’t aware of the rules, and the PDC acknowledged that its forms could be more clearly spell out the requirements. Though the law that required this reporting was passed in 1995, the PDC still uses an old form that doesn’t have a space to report per-person costs.

When the $50 threshold for meals is passed, lobbyists are supposed to notify lawmakers so they can file reports. But this system often breaks down, according to the investigation. It’s been nearly 10 years since the PDC has audited these filings. The agency says it’s been the victim of cost-cutting and doesn’t have the manpower.

The biggest issue is that the system hasn’t been modernized and organized with any sophistication. Even before this media investigation, Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, had authored House Bill 1005, which would require lobbyists to file electronic reports, and provide the support needed for the PDC to set up a searchable, sortable database.

To pay for this, lobbying groups would be charged a $200 annual fee. Some lobbyists have said the fee would be worth it, because they want an easy way to file reports. But others say the fee would be tantamount to charging citizens for communicating with their lawmakers. Most lobbyists are well-paid, so they could easily absorb the cost. But, on principle, they raise a fair First Amendment point.

In 2012, state lobbyists ran up $52 million in expenses, much of it on entertainment, meals and drinks for lawmakers. That’s enough to cause heartburn for anyone who values see-through government.

Lawmakers must come up with a system that’s easy to digest.

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