Wednesday, March 01, 2006

No such thing as a free lunch?

The bugle has been sounded so often in this space that my lips are in danger of freezing in a pucker. Yet the industry slumbers on, oblivious to the business that’s at risk.

If you doubt it, consider an Associated Press story that moved on the wires today about Santa Fe, N.M., a town that doesn’t exactly rival Las Vegas or New Orleans as a lost-weekend setting. Yet in a single 30-day legislative session, wrote Barry Massey, lobbyists peeled $230,307 from their bankrolls to wine and dine politicians in the state capital.

Indeed, mandated filings of the lobbyists’ expenditures suggest a whole corporate-donors wing should be added to our Rogues Gallery, a virtual pantheon of outstanding politicians-turned-freebie-sponges. Regular readers will recall that prior inductees include Duke Cunningham, the disgraced California congressman who has confessed to accepting bribes, including more than $10,000 in free restaurant meals and hotel rooms. And then there’s former Illinois governor George Ryan, who’s been accused in his corruption trial of running up a $7,500 bill at a single Florida restaurant.

But those purported excesses seem like a split watercress sandwich compared with some of the indulgences that were noted in Albuquerque. Mind you, the latter instances were all completely legal and proper; I don’t mean to suggest the entertain-ees engaged in the sort of shenanigans that were ascribed to Cunningham and Ryan. But they certainly didn’t balk at being pampered by influence-peddlers, including Presbyterian Health Care Services. The religion-affiliated wellness concern threw a $20,190 dinner for legislators and the governor. It also spent more than $13,000 on a prayer breakfast for the governor. The virtues of poverty were likely not the topic.

Of course, similar outlays are probably expensed every day in the other 49 state capitals. It’s just a cost of legislative business—the fee for making sausage, you might say.

Yet, with an ear cocked to scandals like Cunningham and Ryan’s and an eye on this fall’s elections, the beneficiaries themselves are starting to feel squeamish about how much money is flowing to you on their behalf. Lobbying-reform measures are under consideration in a number of states, as they are in Washington, D.C. Consider, for instances, the new mindset taking hold in Albany, where meals purchased by a lobbyist for an elected official have long been capped at $35. Once, the rule was applied on a per-meal basis. Now the authorities are asserting that the $35 is an annual cap. Fortunately, we do have White Castles in the state.

On the industry’s list of legislative or regulatory worries, the impact of lobbying reforms probably falls close to the bottom. But that won’t soften the wallop to the relatively few places that count on lobbyists for a big chunk of their trade.

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