Lobbyists intent on protecting their special-interest employers from cuts in state funds or the elimination of tax credits took legislators out to meals more last session as lawmakers grappled with the worst budget crisis in modern times, records show.
Most legislators accepted things of value from lobbyists — mostly meals — at the same time they were telling agencies to cut spending to deal with low revenue that resulted in a $1.2 billion shortfall for this fiscal year.
Records filed with the state Ethics Commission show lobbyists spent 24 percent more on lawmakers during the first six months of this year compared with the same period a year ago. Legislative sessions are held February to May.
Lobbyists spent $51,133 on lawmakers from January to June. Almost all of that was for meals.
More than $10,000 was spent on lawmakers' staff.
Lobbyists spent $12,564 more on legislators this year than a year ago.
Lobbyists reported spending $38,587 on legislators during the first six months of 2009, according to reports filed a short time after the filing deadline.
Buying meals and gifts by lobbyists on behalf of their employers had been going down until this year. During the first six months of 2008, lobbyists reported spending $73,652 on legislators; for the same period in 2007 they reported spending nearly $120,000.
Law changed in 2008A big reason for the decline is a law that went into effect July 1, 2008. It cut from $300 to $100 the allowable amount spent on gifts for legislators and elected officials by a lobbyist's employer in a calendar year.
The law also requires more reporting of gifts and money not covered previously. It requires lobbyists to disclose gifts after spending more than $10 on an official or aide during each six-month period. Previously, only gifts that cost $50 or more had to be disclosed.
Most lobbyists complied with the $100 limit. In a handful of instances, a lobbyist went over the limit by also buying a meal that cost more than $50 for a legislator and a similarly priced meal for the legislator's spouse. Meals or a gift for a lawmaker's spouse counts against the legislator's annual limit, according to the commission.
The lobbyist reports were due July 20. A check of records filed by noon Tuesday showed 78 lobbyists had filed reports stating they provided things of value to elected officials or their staff from January to June. Because of budget cuts, it took a few days for the commission to enter written reports on the agency's website. Lobbyists may file reports electronically. Next year, they'll be required to do so.
There are an estimated 385 lobbyists who work at the state Capitol. Lobbyists don't face a fine for not filing their reports by the deadline. They don't have to file reports if they don't spend anything on elected officials or their staff.
The Oklahoma Association of Electric Cooperatives spent the most, $3,785, according to the reports. The Chickasaw Nation spent $2,877, the Choctaw Nation spent $869, and the Cherokee Nation spent $684.
The Oklahoma State Medical Association spent $2,978, and the Oklahoma Association for Justice, formerly known as the Oklahoma Trial Lawyers Association, spent $2,260.
The National Rifle Association, as legislators discussed gun measures, spent $1,763 and the Oklahoma Education Association spent $1,403 as lawmakers pondered several school reform bills.
The Oklahoma Farm Bureau, with its main objective to get equine dentists, or teeth floaters, to practice their craft without fear of prosecution, spent $1,083.
Other significant companies and groups spending money on legislators, mostly in the form of meals, were The American Academy of Ophthalmology, $2,278; American Electric Power-Public Service Company of Oklahoma, $1,938; AT&T, $1,317; and Chesapeake Energy Corp., $777.
The Tarrant Regional Water District, a Texas group seeking to buy water from southern Oklahoma, spent $1,808 on meals.
Rep. Ron Peters, R-Tulsa, received the most from lobbyists, $1,130, according to the reports. He led the human services appropriations subcommittee.
Rep. Ken Miller, R-Edmond, chairman of the House Appropriations and Budget Committee, received the second-highest amount, $1,071. His committee handled all bills funding state government as well as measures dealing with placing a two-year moratorium on tax credits and a deferral of certain oil and gas drilling rebates.
By contrast, Miller's counterpart in the Senate, Sen. Mike Johnson, R-Kingfisher, received $45, putting him as the sixth-lowest.
House Republicans, who have a 62-39 majority, received twice the attention from lobbyists than Democrats. Reports show lobbyists spent $25,560 on House Republicans and $12,450 on House Democrats.
In the Senate, where Republicans have a slimmer 26-22 edge, the amount of gifts to lawmakers was nearly equal, with Senate Republicans getting $6,776, or 52 percent, in things of value and Senate Democrats getting $6,348, or 48 percent.
Four of the state's 149 lawmakers were not reported as receiving anything of value by lobbyists. They are Republican Sens. James Halligan of Stillwater, Mike Mazzei, of Tulsa, and Steve Russell, of Oklahoma City, and Rep. Jason Murphey, R-Guthrie. Murphey has tried to get legislation passed that would allow lawmakers to sign up for a "no-gifts list” that would prevent lobbyists from giving legislators any items of value.
Murphey has a sign on his Capitol door advising lobbyists not to give him or his executive assistant any gifts. Several legislators have similar signs.