Lobbyists seeking to influence elected officials in Oklahoma continue to spend some of the highest amounts ever in spite of rules intended to curb their practices.
Recently filed state Ethics Commission reports show that lobbyists spent about $473,500 on meals, beverages and gifts for lawmakers and other state officials during the first five months of this year.
The spending, which covers this year’s legislative session and the month leading up to it, is a 34% increase over the amount lobbyists spent during the same period last year. It is the most lobbyists have spent in the January-to-May time frame, with the exception of the first five months of 2017, when they spent about $480,000, records show.
The increased activity comes as the Ethics Commission has tried to rein in forms of lobbyist spending, such as placing stricter rules on gifts that lawmakers and other state officials can receive. But the totals show that although the rules have changed on how lobbyists spend money, it has done little to curtail the overall flow of money seeking to influence the state’s policymakers.
Who Received What
Lawmakers take widely different approaches to accepting food, drinks or gifts from lobbyists.
Legislators accepted on average about $1,200 worth of lobbyists’ gifts during the first five months of 2019. The per-lawmaker amount ranged from $4.31 to nearly $3,000.
Several lawmakers in leadership positions, including Senate Assistant Majority Whip Sen. Casey Murdock, R-Felt ($2,926); House Judiciary Chairman Chris Kannaday, R-Oklahoma City ($2,769) and Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah ($2,612), were the top recipients.
Meanwhile, three lawmakers – Rep. Mickey Dollens, D-Oklahoma City; Sen. Ron Sharp, R-Shawnee, and Rep. Tom Gann, R-Inola – reported taking in less than $100.
Although party leaders and committee chairs make up most of the biggest recipients, the filings show this year’s record number of freshman lawmakers – a group that traditionally is a target of lobbyists seeking to pick up new allies – also recorded higher-than-average totals.
The 44 new legislators accepted an average of $1,322 in meals or gifts, while returning lawmakers took in an average of $1,127.
Republicans were targeted more often than Democrats. The 117 GOP lawmakers received a total of $143,192, or an average of $1,234 per lawmaker. The 34 Democrats took in $35,185 in meals or gifts from lobbyists, or an average of $1,066 per lawmaker.
Events Drive Greater Spending
The amount of lobbyist spending on each lawmaker reported to the Ethics Commission doesn’t capture the full picture.
The commission doesn’t require lobbyists to disclose which lawmakers are feted at events to which all lawmakers or all members of a committee or caucus are invited. That form of lobbying totaled $266,260, or more than half of total lobbyist spending.
But the lobbying reports do show which groups are sponsoring these events.
This year, five groups – the Oklahoma Cable and Telecommunications Association, the Oklahoma Association of Electric Cooperatives, Public Service Company of Oklahoma, Cox Communication and the Professional Fire Fighters of Oklahoma (combined with the AFL-CIO and International Association of Fire Fighters) – spent more than $20,000 each on these types of events.
Some Lobbying Information Hidden
When a lobbyist purchases a meal or gift for an individual or small group of lawmakers, it can be difficult to determine which client the lobbyist is representing at the gathering, much less the meeting’s specific purpose.
As Oklahoma Watch has reported, lobbyists don’t have to reveal what bill or topic they are discussing when they buy a meal for a state or elected official. And with the exception of spending on events that all lawmakers are invited to, lobbyists don’t have to list what client they are representing when they buy a meal or a gift.
State rules only require lobbyists who spend money on individuals to list the date, amount and recipient. For lobbyists who represent just one company or organization, it’s clear who is behind the meal, drink or gift. But it’s a different story for the dozens of lobbyists who have multiple clients.
Seven of the 10 lobbyists who spent the most on meals or gifts for lawmakers and state officials have three or more companies or organizations they represent. In these cases, the public can only speculate which company or special-interest group is ultimately behind the purchase of the gift or meal.