ONE of the unfortunate by-products of term limits in state legislatures has been that lobbyists have rushed to fill the power vacuum, typically because veteran special-interest representatives possess much of the institutional information lawmakers rely on when passing new legislation.
As a result, just as Congress is moving to require more disclosure of how much lobbyists spend to influence the folks in Washington, the states need to vigorously enforce existing lobbying laws or even write some new ones.
In Ohio, the legislative inspector general has levied fines ranging from $100 to $600 to 41 employers and 20 individual lobbyists who failed to meet one or more reporting deadlines last year.
Violators include such politically active organizations as the Ohio Federation of Teachers and the National Federation of Independent Business-Ohio.
But those fines are nominal and the penalty for not paying them, other than bad publicity, is only a misdemeanor. The law could use some sharper enforcement teeth.
The debate is on a broader scale in Michigan, one of only three states that don't require legislators to disclose their personal and family finances, information that might illuminate entangling relationships and conflicts of interest with lobbyists. A bill to close that loophole has been passed by the House but faces an uncertain future in the Republican-dominated Senate.
The Michigan House also has approved legislation to set a one-year period before outgoing legislators and top state executives could become lobbyists. That bill also is pending in the Senate.
In 2005, Michigan had 43 former legislators registered as lobbyists, according to an Associated Press report.
At one time, lawmakers who had served for many years could be counted upon to supply the institutional memory to help keep the legislative process on track and avoid repeating old mistakes.
But, since the advent of term limits in the 1990s, such experience has become sorely lacking, and lawmakers tend to offer short-term "quick fix" solutions to problems, such as taxation, when long-term remedies would be more beneficial.
Special-interest groups quickly recognized an opportunity for greater immediate impact on what laws are passed and have bolstered their ranks in most states. In Michigan, for example, there were 971 registered lobbyists in 1998; last year, there were 1,222, a 26 percent increase.
In 2001, lobbyists reported spending $17.8 million to influence legislators; last year, it was $22.7 million, up 28 percent.
Because money buys influence in state capitals just as it does in Congress, tough reporting and disclosure laws are necessary to keep close watch over lobbyists and their relationships with lawmakers.
Such laws can't guarantee honesty, of course, but they can help preserve the integrity of the legislative process.
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