Tracking lobbyists online

Picture this: You’re a member of a health care advocacy group and you need to know the status of a new bill on health care reform‹now. So you boot your computer and surf over to the state’s Lobbying-on-Line Web site. With a couple clicks of the mouse, you see that a pharmaceutical company has hired a heavy-hitting lobbyist to kill the measure. You grab the phone and start dialing your allies in the Legislature. . .

High-tech Massachusetts, right?

Hardly. It’s the cheesehead state, Wisconsin. There, in just a few moments on the Web, anyone with a modem and a mission can find out which interest groups are weighing in on which legislation, practically as it’s happening.

Under Wisconsin law, when any organization hires a lobbyist to influence legislation on its behalf, the state requires the organization to register itself and the lobbyist with the state Ethics Board. Each time the lobbyist speaks or writes to a lawmaker attempting to influence his position on any issue, he must report this communication to the Ethics Board within 15 days. The board then posts that information, updated daily, on Lobbying in Wisconsin (http://ethics.state.wi.us) for all Web surfers to see.

Users can search by lobbyist, employer, bill, or administrative rule and download directory files with contact information of registered lobbyists and the organizations that hire them. To get a sense for lobbying trends, surfers can also download graphs that plot, for instance, which bills received the most attention or which organizations spent the most trying to get their way. Although lobbyists have to file a lot of information on a frequent basis, they can do so online, which is not only easy but avoids the errors that take place when state employees have to enter data from paper forms.

The influence-tracking site has been a hit. Launched in January 1999, the site boasts 3,500 hits each business day and more than 2,000 unique users a month. For its efforts, Lobbying in Wisconsin was recognized as one of 25 finalists in the Ford Foundation’s Innovations in American Government awards program last year.

Here, the office of Secretary of State William Galvin collects and posts lobbyists’ reports online as well (http://www.state.ma.us/sec/pre/prelob). Organizations that hire lobbyists must file a notice of employment, register their legislative agent, then authorize him to lobby. Lobbyists file reports declaring which bills they have lobbied on and how much they were paid to do so. Organizations must also file a separate report listing whom they hired and how much they paid him.

But the information is nowhere near as complete–or as timely. All the reporting is done the old-fashioned way–on paper–and only twice a year, as state law requires. Galvin’s staff also has to compare, one by one, the lobbyists’ paper reports to the separate reports filed by their employers. “Just the process takes a considerable period of time,” says Galvin. Electronic filing, he says, “would be much easier.”

The secretary’s Web site does offer search capabilities to list lobbyists, their payments, and the organizations paying them. Surfers can also scroll through one of 26 categories, from automotive to utilities. But information is often at least six months old and does not include what bills the lobbyists have been working to pass, kill, or amend, although this information is disclosed on the written reports.

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“Our state operates differently,” says Galvin, who adds that all he can do is force lobbyists to file the information as required by law. “Here lobbyists will only file when they have to.”

Which is exactly the point. Ken White, of Common Cause of Massachusetts, says there’s no reason that the state’s reporting requirements couldn’t be brought up to date with the available technology. “The new Clean Elections Law requires candidates to report [contributions] virtually instantaneously via the Web,” he says. “I think it would be possible for lobbyists to be held to the same standards provided the software were both free and compatible with standard software tools.”

As Wisconsin demonstrates, the technology is there, but in Massachusetts, the information isn’t–which makes the Bay State look more like a backwater than the dot-commonwealth. “It’s ironic,” says White, “given that we are one of the centers for high tech.”