July 9, 2017

Sina-cism: Lobbying stinks — don’t make it worse

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Legislative leaders in Massachusetts who are today asking business leaders for money for a conference are the same leaders who next session will be sitting in judgment on legislation affecting those businesses.
Chris Sinacola

Chris Sinacola

Political lobbying is mildly repulsive at best. It is also highly effective.

Businesses and organizations, including state and local governments, often see enormous returns on their lobbying investments. Those who lament the existence of lobbying, like those who lament the existence of big money in politics, should remember that the First Amendment confers broad protections on the activities of lobbyists and donors. Both are permanent fixtures of our politics.

That said, there are both specific rules that govern lobbying and broader principles that should guide our thinking about it. Together, they can help prevent a descent from mildly to thoroughly repulsive.

Just how subtly slippery a slope we face is illustrated by a June 29 report in The Boston Globe detailing how Democratic legislative leaders in Massachusetts are trying to raise $2.2 million to pay for a meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures, to be held Aug. 5-9 in Boston.

Related opinion: Mariano urges caution when leveling political punches

The NCSL is a bipartisan, non-governmental organization that looks out for the interests of state lawmakers and tries to promote effective and efficient government. Fair enough. Its conferences attract thousands of state lawmakers, business leaders, and lobbyists from around the country.

And it is supported in large part by business organizations, companies and interests, which in 2016 donated nearly $2.4 million to the NCSL.

It seems logical enough, then, that state lawmakers might want to help raise money for the Boston gathering. In February, lawyers for the House and Senate asked the State Ethics Commission about their fundraising resolution, and got a green light. The SEC ruled that lawmakers can use public resources, including their aides, to solicit donations, although the aides cannot do so “directly.”

According to the Globe, state Sen. Harriette Chandler, D-Worcester, sent fellow lawmakers an email and NCSL fundraising packet, listing some 60 companies and organizations that have either committed funds or could be solicited for donations. Depending upon the amount they give, donors can receive designations such as “Faneuil Hall,” “Plymouth Rock” and “Boston Garden” that carry certain perks.

The list of donors and would-be donors includes the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, Liberty Mutual, Bank of America, Fidelity, Verizon, and many more in finance, technology, life sciences and other businesses.

That fact alone raises the appearance of impropriety, because at one time or another all these businesses have legislation or interests before the Legislature. The problem here is not an overt violation of Massachusetts lobbying rules, but a blending of power and influence murkier than the depths of the Charles River.

It is one thing for a business to support a bipartisan organization. The NCSL can legitimately say that the donations support general goals of education and knowledge-sharing around better government. Such donations do not create any expectation that an individual lawmaker or state legislative body will favor or disfavor any given donor’s interests.

But having one state’s lawmakers involved in soliciting businesses for donations can create such an expectation, or the appearance thereof.

Chandler’s office told the Globe that the conference will generate $10 million in economic activity, and that no taxpayer dollars will be used. But that isn’t the point. The point is that legislative leaders in Massachusetts who are today asking business leaders for money for a conference are the same leaders who next session will be sitting in judgment on legislation affecting those businesses.

Last week’s Sina-cism: A Millbury soldier’s odyssey in the Great War

If I’m a corporate bigwig who gives $100,000 for the NCSL conference and receives “Old North Church” status — with airport pickup service, VIP receptions, and the best hotel accommodations — you can be sure that I’ll expect there to be darn little separation between “Old North Church” and state the next time legislation affecting my company comes up for a vote. That’s just human nature.

Lawmakers themselves understand this, because House Majority Leader Ronald Mariano, D-Quincy, told the Globe that he was disappointed to see the email appear in the general State House email system.

What’s disappointing is that any lawmaker would be reluctant to see an email regarding any legal business become public — unless that business is as distasteful as this.

The NCSL is a legitimate organization whose upcoming conference could be of interest and value. It should foot the entire bill, and if it cannot afford to do so — top-flight hotels and big-name speakers aren’t cheap — it should scale it back to something the group can actually afford.

In any case, lawmakers should neither be asked nor volunteer to solicit donations from corporate interests on their behalf.

Chris Sinacola is a Worcester Sun columnist. His observations on politics, current events, history and more appear every Sunday.

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