An analysis in the Indianapolis Star last week helps to explain why things work the way they do at the Indiana Statehouse.
“Special interests spent more than $115 million over the past five years to influence the Indiana General Assembly,” the Star reported. “The biggest spenders have a deeply vested interest in what happens at the Statehouse.”
AT&T spent the most – $1.7 million, the Star found. Other big spenders include the Indiana State Teachers Association, casino companies and an organization that represents nursing homes, the Indiana Health Care Association.
The numbers don't come as a surprise to those who have watched legislators in past years ignore pleas from their own constituents yet fall all over themselves to pass laws friendly to entrenched utility, gambling and communications giants. Lobbying money also helps swell the war chests of legislators, caucuses and political parties.
To be sure, lobbying is an integral part of the legislative process, helping to ensure that legislators get the information they need on key issues and sometimes serving as a brake on ideological excesses. The teachers' union's advocacy, for instance, has helped public school teachers make at least some progress on pay despite the Republican supermajority's fondness for shifting educational funding to private-school vouchers.
Public-interest advocacy groups engage in lobbying, too, though they are almost always overmatched by industry lobbyists when such subjects as telecommunications or energy and utility policies are brought before lawmakers.
“It's an extraordinary amount of money that funnels through the Statehouse on these campaigns,” Kerwin Olson, executive director of the Indiana Citizen Action Coalition, said last week. “It's not the only reason, but that's the primary reason that these industries get what they want at the Statehouse with little or no questions asked.”
The problem is not just the money, noted Olson, himself among a relative handful of registered lobbyists for public-interest causes. “It's also about how many bodies you have in the hallway ... the attention that these industries are able to give to legislators to make them feel incredibly valued and important.”
Julia Vaughn, policy director for Common Cause Indiana, agrees.
“In Indiana, we have no limits,” she said. “So a lobbyist can literally wine and dine legislators every day during the session” or take them gambling or to a sports event. “And that has absolutely nothing to do with legislating. ... That has everything to do with creating relationships.”
Lobbyists such as Vaughn rely on facts and reasoned arguments; she says she doesn't buy lunches for legislators. “Legislation and public policy in our state should be decided on its merits,” Vaughn said, “not because you felt really good about the lobbyist who's in support of this legislation” after they took you for a steak or to a ballgame.
Indiana could begin to reduce undue influence by sharply restricting how much money lobbyists can shower on lawmakers through free meals and entertainment.
“In Wisconsin,” Vaughn said, “a lobbyist can't even buy a cup of coffee for a legislator.”
According to another analysis by the Star, the average Indiana legislator was paid about $65,600 last year, pretty good for a part-time job supported by taxpayers. Letting legislators pay for their own lunches when they want to hear a lobbyist out shouldn't be a problem.