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Lobbyists' Role in Iowa Politics

posted on February 8, 2008 at 8:45 AM


Under the dome of the Iowa capitol, and against the backdrop of this century-old historic architectural grandeur, is a flurry of activity focused on the present. Many of the people in the second floor rotunda, just outside the doors to the House and Senate chambers, are some of the 685 lobbyists registered to lobby the legislature. 685 -- that's 4.5 lobbyists per lawmaker.

Lyle Krewson, contract lobbyist: "I'm a contract. I have 4 clients."

Lyle Krewson is a former legislator who became a lobbyist in 1984.

Don Avenson, Avenson, Oakley & Cope Consultants: "Our firm is made up of three people all whom have been here since their 20s."

Don Avenson is part of one of the largest lobbying firms at the legislature - with more than 25 clients. Avenson, like Krewson, also is a former legislator. In the mid 1980s, he was also Speaker of the House.

Avenson: "Everybody thinks there's a big advantage to having come out and being a lobbyist right away. Actually, it's not that way. In my case, as Speaker of the House come out and be a lobbyist that sends notes in and waits for people to come and talk to you, some of whom are still mad at you."

Much of the daily interaction between lobbyists and lawmakers takes place rather publicly in the rotunda because most lawmakers don't have private offices. Also public, and on file with the House, are lobbyists' registrations that identify the lobbyists' clients and disclose what they are paid. They must also report monthly expenses during session, and what bills they are lobbying "for" or "against."

Among the files is one for Iowa Public Television -- which has two employees registered to lobby.

While there may be many forms and declarations filed, there really isn't any oversight or auditing.

Mark Brandsgard, Chief Clerk, Iowa House: "Essentially they're just filed. Our job is, we're not regulators. We're essentially just file clerks. There's no oversight by our office. The code gives the oversight to the House Ethics committee."

Brandsgard said the last time the legislature did a major overhaul to regulate lobbyists -- which included more financial reporting -- was in the early-1990's. Before that, a gift law passed, limiting individual spending on a lawmaker to $3.00.

Krewson: "I actually believe I voted for that law way back when. And that's actually a very good rule, levels the playing field some. I hope to build good working relationship right here in the capitol with legislators and I didn't particularly liked being wined and dined when I was a legislator and so I don't really want to do it as a lobbyist either."

"Lunch money" is one thing. Campaign finance is becoming more of growing issue. Lobbyists do file their contributions, but in addition, some also help their clients raise Political Action Committee -- or PAC money -- for elections.

There are some who argue, the cost of running a legislative campaign has skyrocketed and more money needs to be raised … some with the help of lobbyists.

Avenson: "I helped raise money for other candidates from other organizations and from our clients but my personal contributions were to my House member and Senator."

Does that fundraising help give those lobbyists an edge when it comes to getting the ear of a legislator? Some say, "maybe."

Krewson: "I do believe that the role of money has changed the relationship of lobbyists and legislators to some degree and that lobbyists who represent clients that have significant PAC funding available maybe have a different kind of access or a more immediate access or something like that."

Krewson says his non-profit clients try to make up for lack of PACs by having their large memberships make phone calls and write letters to legislators, which is what many other citizen groups do. For example, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement held a rally at the capitol, then told its members to head to the second floor and ask to speak to lawmakers.

Carole Simmons, Fairfield, Iowans for Community Improvement: "I guess my concern is for the public good and I know most of the paid lobbyists here are lobbying on behalf of private concerns and so I feel it's just good for the public to have a voice as well."

Professional lobbyist Don Avenson would argue that the public is represented.

Avenson: "There are very few Iowans who aren't, in one way or another, represented by a lobbyist, through their church, through their association, through their careers, through their home towns. They may not know it but in one way or another almost every Iowan is represented by a lobbyist in the state capitol."

Tags: campaign finance Iowa Iowa legislature lobbyists politics

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