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Giannoulias calls for disclosure of lobbyist contracts

Capitol News Illinois

For decades, lobbyists in the Illinois Statehouse have been required to report how much they spend wining, dining and entertaining lawmakers.

Currently, though, there is no law requiring lobbyists to disclose how much they are paid by corporations, industry groups or other special interest organizations..

That would change under a bill now pending in the Illinois House. House Bill 4591, an initiative of Secretary of State Alexi Giannoulias, would, for the first time in Illinois, require lobbyists to disclose how much they are paid by each of their clients.

“Right now, we're only seeing part of the picture. We're seeing what the lobbyist is spending to change or implement a policy,” Amy Williams, an attorney in the secretary of state’s office, told the House Ethics and Elections Committee Wednesday. “We're lacking what the client is spending to change or implement a policy, and the client is the driving force behind those policy implications.”

Lobbying is defined in state lawas any form of communication conducted “for the ultimate purpose of influencing any executive, legislative, or administrative action at the State, municipal, county, or township government level.”

People who engage in that activity professionally are required to register with the secretary of state’s office. So, too, are the entities that hire them.

In addition to requiring disclosure of lobbyist compensation, HB 4591 would give the secretary broader authority to enforce state laws governing the lobbying business. Those would include, among other things, authority to investigate suspected violations of the act, to compel the production of documents and testimony as part of an investigation, and to review books and records of individuals applying to renew their lobbyist registrations.

Williams noted that all the provisions of the bill already exist, to one extent or another, in many other states. That includes compensation disclosure, which she said is required in 18 other states.

But that was the provision that generated the most resistance from those who work as lobbyists in the Statehouse.

Josh Witkowski, who operates a small lobbying firm called XLN Services, said he has no objection to disclosing gifts and donations provided to decision-makers because those can be seen attempts to influence a decision. But he described the contracts between lobbyists and their clients as private business transactions that should not be accessible in a public database.

“And all it's really going to do is continue this stigma of believing that money runs politics,” he said. “And any lobbyists down here will tell you, a higher-paid lobbyist can implode just as well as a low-paid lobbyist can. The money that somebody is spending on lobbying doesn't necessarily mean they're going to be effective.”

Holly Ambuehl, a lobbyist for Forefront, an association of nonprofit organizations and grantmaking foundations, also raised concerns about how such a requirement would affect small community-based organizations with limited administrative budgets, including those that represent poor and underserved communities.

“We have a lot of data to show that small nonprofits are more likely to be led by and be serving persons of color,” she said. “And so there's an equity issue at play, as well, that's very important to Forefront where we need to be looking for ways to support those organizations instead of making it harder for them to fulfill their missions.”

But Bryan Zarou, of the Better Government Association, argued that tightening the state’s lobbying laws and requiring lobbyists to disclose their compensation are long overdue reforms in Illinois.

“This is not a new idea. Eighteen other states have this practice,” he said. “From the BGA perspective, this is not about what lobbyists are making, but rather a transparency measure for the public to see who is paying lobbyists and how much.”

Rep. Maurice West, D-Rockford, chair of the Ethics and Elections Committee and lead sponsor of the bill, said after the meeting that although a deadline has already passed for most bills to be sent to the floor of the House, the contents of HB 4591 could still be included in an “omnibus” ethics bill that may be introduced later in the session.

Capitol News Illinoisis a nonprofit, nonpartisan news service covering state government. It is distributed to hundreds of newspapers, radio and TV stations statewide. It is funded primarily by the Illinois Press Foundation and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, along with major contributions from the Illinois Broadcasters Foundation and Southern Illinois Editorial Association.

Peter Hancock joined the Capitol News Illinois team as a reporter in January 2019.