November 9, 2015

Iowa Flunks Integrity Test When Keeping Tabs On Special Interests

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IA25_IowaStateCapitolIowa’s practices to ensure transparency in lobbying earned an F in a recently released State Integrity Investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization. The survey examined various measures of transparency and accountability in state government. IowaWatch was involved in conducting the survey of Iowa government agencies.

EDITOR’S NOTE

IowaWatch assistant editor, data analyst and reporter Lauren Mills participated in the Iowa portion of this investigation, asking predetermined questions, doing follow-up interviews, responding to investigation organizers’ requests for more information, re-checking data and writing this story for IowaWatch.

READ MORE:

NATIONAL OVERVIEW:
See How The States Stack Up

SEE HOW IOWA COMPARES:
Iowa Draws A Lowly D+ In New Government Transparency Report

IOWA JUDICIAL BRANCH:
Iowa’s Judicial Branch Flunks Transparency Survey Despite Landmark Reports Availability

DATABASE:
Lobbyist Function Reports – 2015

ABOUT:
About The State Integrity Investigation

METHODOLOGY:
How We Investigated State Integrity

The category earned one of Iowa’s two failing grades. The other went to the Judicial Branch.

“Ultimately, I would like to believe that the power still lies with everyday Iowa citizens,” said Adam Mason, state policy director for Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement Action Fund. “Unfortunately I feel that by and large that isn’t the case.”

He said most Iowans don’t have time to visit the Statehouse every day and track legislation that goes through its chambers, making it hard to counterbalance the influence of lobbyists.

Iowa lost points for the frequency and way in which lobbying reports are filed. Employers, not the lobbyists themselves, file reports on lobbyist salaries, fees, retainers and expense reimbursements. The reports are only filed once a year and the survey required reports to be filed at least quarterly to receive full points.

Reports in Iowa previously were filed by lobbyists on a monthly and quarterly basis, but a 2010 bill removed those requirements. Instead lobbyists are required to identify clients in their annual registration statement.

Lobbyists also register on bills to show how their positions on legislation and who they are representing. Those declarations are listed separately from the annual report.

Reports are not audited for accuracy and there are no penalties for late or inaccurate reports, although an official with the Senate noted that lobbyists wouldn’t be able to register at the start of a new year until after overdue reports had been filed.

Carmine Boal, chief clerk of the Iowa House of Representatives, said the office ensures that the client list identified on lobbyists’ annual registration remains accurate. Beyond that, the office just checks to make sure reports are filed.

The Iowa House of Representatives is shown on the opening day of a legislative session on January 13, 2014.

Lauren Mills/IowaWatch

The Iowa House of Representatives is shown on the opening day of the 2014 legislative session on Jan. 13, 2014.

“It is open to the public, so anyone can view it. If someone thinks that it wasn’t a correct number, they could challenge it. I think the public eye is probably our best sunshine on the process because it is all available online,” Boal said during an interview conducted by IowaWatch as part of the survey.

Keith Luchtel, who worked as a Statehouse lobbyist for more than 30 years and served as the executive director of the Iowa Public Information Board, said he thought there was a good deal of transparency if people know how to use the system.

He said he didn’t see much benefit to monthly reporting that was in place when we was lobbying especially because Iowa’s gift law now caps spending at $3.

Luchtel said people interested in tracking an issue can follow legislation on the Legislature’s website and look up lobbyist declarations for specific bills. The declarations show the position lobbyists are taking on behalf of clients — whether they are advocating for, against or simply monitoring a bill.

The public also can delve into client reports that are available on a separate page on the website.

“It can take a significant time commitment to follow some of these issues,” Luchtel said.

THE BENEFITS OF PERSONAL CONTACT

Luchtel acknowledged that having personal contacts is also important.

“The system itself is one of personal contact and work and it’s not always reflected in the documents. Some of that could be intentional — that they have an idea and they don’t want to be lambasted early on so they walk around and talk to each other — but I think a lot of it is just the course of ordinary business.”

Protesters gathered during Iowa Citizens For Community Improvement's 'Day at the Capitol' on Jan. 13, 2014.

Lauren Mills/IowaWatch

Protesters gathered during Iowa Citizens For Community Improvement’s ‘Day at the Capitol’ on Jan. 13, 2014.

Although it wasn’t included as a factor in the score, Iowa has a practice allowing lobbyists and organizations to spend relatively unlimited amounts of money on functions held during the legislative session — provided all legislators are invited and pre- and post-event reports include breakdowns of the money spent are filed.

Mason, of the Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement Action Fund, called the functions a “loophole big enough to drive a truck through.”

A legal briefing by the Iowa Legislative Services Agency notes that all “registration and reporting requirements must be met for such gifts to be permissible.”

However, the reports are not always filed on time, or at all. During the last legislative session, nearly a dozen organizations didn’t file reports after a function, according to the Iowa Legislature’s Lobbyist Function Reports website.

Last year, more than $370,000 was spent on more than 130 functions, an IowaWatch analysis showed.

Mason said his biggest issue with the events is that they frequently occur off-site and after hours, limiting who can attend and giving lobbyists and their organizations special access to legislators.

“It creates this perception – whether it is real or not – it creates the perception of undue influence on policy makers,” he said.

However Luchtel said he didn’t believe the events sway legislators.

“It is hard to fathom that anybody would be influenced by a reception, because there are so many of them to go to that they’ve really become a burden for legislators,” he said.

GREATER TRANSPARENCY

Luchtel pointed to issues of campaign finance as a greater threat of influence to legislators. He said a political actions committee (PAC) or group with a significant war chest can have a presence in the Statehouse and may be able to influence some legislation.

Keith Luchtel

Keith Luchtel

“But if it’s something that impinges upon the watchful citizens of Iowa, I think they are going to run into opposition at the grassroots level that is probably going to prevail,” he said.

“Legislators are responsive to their citizens at home — people who are in their district, who vote for them. And I always say, ‘Thank God, PAC dollars don’t vote.’”

Scott Raecker, director of The Robert D. and Billie Ray Center at Drake University and a former Iowa state representative, said he received daily emails when he was in office from constituents wanting to know how bills were progressing through the legislature.

“That’s who we work for is the public. We get public input from forums, when we door-knock and in vast emails and from constituency groups and associations. Public input is critical,” he said during an interview with IowaWatch for the survey.

Mason, whose organization frequently takes Iowans to the Statehouse as part of its citizen lobby team, said most legislators are willing to speak with constituents. Legislators who chair key committees often understand their decisions impact Iowans across the state and will speak with people from outside their district.

He said greater transparency and reporting in the Statehouse could help to give citizens and regulators a better understanding of what goes on in the Legislature and whether or not current systems enforce the laws efficiently. From there, watchdogs could define any changes that need to be implemented.

He said the key is that people have to be engaged and participate in state government.

“It’s not about government being good or bad. It’s about who does government work for. Ultimately, at every level, we truly believe that government should serve everyday folks. And it’s up to us as citizens in a participatory democracy to make that happen.”

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This IowaWatch story was republished by The Hawk Eye (Burlington, IA) and The Gazette (Cedar Rapids, IA) under IowaWatch’s mission of sharing stories with media partners.

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