This is the third installment in a series examining the cycle of influence in the stateLegislature - how campaign contributions, lobbyist spending and personal financial interestsaffect legislation.
The care and feeding of the West Virginia Legislature does not come cheap. In the past five years, lobbyists have spent more than $1 million on West Virginia's governmentofficials for meals, receptions and campaign contributions, according to a computer-assistedanalysis of lobbyist disclosure forms. Most of that spending goes to state legislators. That money spent on meals, gifts and receptions does not buy votes directly, said the Rev.Nathan Wilson, lobbyist for the West Virginia Council of Churches. "But it gets lobbyists intothe legislator's office," he said. "It buys them access." Some special-interest groups may have bought themselves more access than others. Since 1996,gambling lobbyists spent more than $220,000. That is 66 times as much as anti-gamblinglobbyists, who spent approximately $3,333. State legislators are asked to be experts in everything. One day, they are debating electricityderegulation, the next, whether to tax barroom video poker machines. When they don't know muchabout an issue, they look for someone nearby who does. Very often, that person is a lobbyist. Larry Swann is a former legislator from Doddridge County who now lobbies in several issueareas, including gambling, health and utilities. Swann spent the second-highest amount onmeals, receptions and gifts of any lobbyist since 1996, more than $37,000. Swann helped sponsor receptions for legislators at the Charleston Marriott, Embassy Suites andEdgewood Country Club. The money he spends on meals and receptions is for "relationship building" between lobbyists,the clients and legislators, Swann said. "You chat with people about baseball or football," he said. "There's
Wilson's group also sponsors a legislative reception, but the
"Legislators should be more in touch with their constituents. But spending $10,000 to achievethat goal is a farce," Wilson said. Swann said that the meals and receptions do not give his clients an unfair advantage, or takeaway from the ability of the average citizen to contact their legislature. "The vast majority of legislators are open-minded and willing to listen to all sides," Swannsaid. But an environmental lobbyist thinks those personal relationships pay off when legislators needadvice about a bill. Rick Eades, with the West Virginia Environmental Council, said one storyshows the difference in access that money can buy. Eades remembers standing outside the Senate Finance Committee minutes before they took up abill dealing with mountaintop removal. A door to a side room opened, and he saw severallegislators huddled around a prominent coal lobbyist with a notebook in his hand. "It was like football players around their coach," he said. "He was holding court." When Eades approached the group, he said they drifted away. He pidgeonholed one senator. "Itold him that we have opinions on this issue too, but I only got 30 seconds with him," he said. Coal, Oil and Gas, and Timber lobbyists have spent more than $175,000 in the last five years,while environmental lobbyists
John Hodges and Swann are first and second in lobbyist spending since 1996. Rounding out thetop five are: Michael Herron, Independent Oil and Gas Association of W.Va., $32,127; Jim Bowen,AFL-CIO, $29,764; and Nelson Robinson, gambling, transportation and other business groups,$26,773. Lobbyists spend money on more than just meals and receptions. Some of the largest lobbyistsgive campaign contributions to candidates as well. For example, the biggest spending lobbyist,Hodges, reported giving $5,300 in campaign contributions to West Virginia candidates since Jan.1. Hodges spent more than $55,000 lobbying for gambling, tobacco and business interests since1996. Swann gave $1,550 in campaign contributions in the same period. "How can they afford these large campaign contributions?" said Norm Steenstra, a lobbyisthimself for Citizens Action Group, a nonprofit organization in Charleston that works on variousreform issues. "What is Larry Swann making? We don't know." Other states require lobbyists to disclose much more information than West Virginia. For example, Maryland asks each group that lobbies its legislature to reveal the total amountit spends for salaries, overhead and other expenses - not just meals and gifts. Maryland also asks for lobbyist salaries - the top salary is more than $1 million, while 79lobbyists get more than $50,000 for their efforts. Steenstra calls for similar disclosure of the total spending of lobbyists in West Virginia. In the end, nothing short of massive public action can challenge the influence of big-spendinglobbyists. "It will take a groundswell of citizen involvement to change things," he said. "Come November, citizens should vote for those legislators who are protecting the interests ofall the people." To contact staff writer Scott Finn, use e-mail or call 357-4323.