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Editorial: Oregon is appallingly bad at regulating lobbyists

Published on June 2, 2016 12:01AM

Even idealistic Oregon is under the thrall of paid lobbyists

“Follow the money” is some of the oldest and best advice for investigative reporters. It also, unfortunately, is regarded as a personal credo by politicians and lobbyists exploiting political connections for personal gain.

Our Tuesday Capital Bureau story by Hillary Borrud, “As spending on lobbying increases, transparency remains murky,” deserves to shock us with its details about the sums lavished on influencing lawmakers and agencies. Sadly, in these times of manipulated and money-drenched government, it comes as little surprise that even idealistic Oregon is under the thrall of paid lobbyists.

It is doubly depressing to learn how Gov. Kate Brown and legislators rubber-stamped an exemption that permits lobbyists to avoid reporting spending to lobby other lobbyists. In effect, this permits influence-peddlers to shroud many of their activities in secrecy. It’s no wonder elected officials are happy to go along with this system of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours.”

For readers not familiar with the term, “lobbyist” literally started as the word for a person who waits in the lobby outside legislative chambers to get a word with lawmakers as they pause in deliberations. Such activities can be, and often are, entirely innocent. Lobbyists often bring great expertise to complex questions.

But the activity has expanded far beyond its original scope and now applies to an entire highly paid industry dedicated to making money by obtaining government contracts, protecting industries from taxation and regulations, and other insider matters. In many cases, lobbyists actually write statutory and regulatory language, which lawmakers then insert into legislation.

Oregon is appallingly bad at regulating lobbyists and making their influence visible to the voting public. The Sunlight Foundation gives Oregon a flunking grade. Such laws as exist are essentially meaningless, leading some activists to focus on the broader and related issue of reforming the state’s lax standards for political donations, which include no campaign contribution limits.

The Oregon Government Ethics Commission may have ethics but lacks basin competency, having initiated an electronic filing system that doesn’t function. Even if it did work, based on last year’s reports it would provide details on far less than 1 percent of the year’s $35.9 million in lobbyist spending.

A spokesman for the state’s lobbyists asserts there is no evidence of corruption and no interest in strengthening disclosure laws. In any just world, this would be all the evidence the public would need to loudly demand a swift and thorough change in how Oregon laws are made.


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