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Lobbyists' role a key component of legislative process

Linking legislators with information

During the legislative session, lobbyist Donna Mabus climbs into bed about two o’clock in the morning, and rises three hours later. By day, she lives on the phone at the Mississippi Capitol, gathering information on the activity of various bills. She usually eats on the run, and moves at a rapid pace.

And after the session ends?

“I take the battery out of my cell phone for about a month,” said Mabus, president of Plato Associates, a lobbying firm in Jackson. “I re-introduce myself to my children and then get back into the process.”

“Lobbying is not just whiskey and steaks anymore,” said Brent Alexander, a senior public policy advisor for Baker Donelson Bearman Caldwell & Berkowitz, P.C., one of the top 10 lobbying firms in the U.S. “You have to have the ability to use all the tools of the political process – everything from opposition research to message development to media strategy to the development and utilization of grass roots networks. Lobbying is an increasingly sophisticated profession, and one that is essential to our democracy. Some people complain about the idea of a lobbyist, but really, we’re all competing in the marketplace of ideas to accomplish certain goals, and the folks that are able to compete most effectively are the ones who have the experience and expertise to get the job done.”

In 2002, Mississippi`s 10 highest-paid lobbyists accounted for $3.9 million of the $9.8 million in total lobbyist compensation, with Beth Clay bringing in $701,216, followed by Clare Hester with $638,147 and Buddy Medlin with $629,833. Mabus and Alexander represented numbers nine and 10, pulling in $181,992 and $179,075, respectively. Since 1995, when Mississippi lobbyists grossed $3.7 million, total lobbyist compensation has nearly tripled, increasing annually except in 2001, when it dropped from $8 million in 2000 to $7.8 million, according to the secretary of state`s office.

Even though it is public record, lobbyist pay is a touchy subject. Medlin declined comment for this story; Clay and Hester could not be reached by press time.

“When it looks like lobbyists are making a tremendous amount of money – and sometimes they are well compensated – you have to look a little deeper to get the real financial picture,” said Alexander. “Lobbyists’ expenses are the same as any small business owner.”

Lobbyists provide an invaluable service to legislators, said Lee Ann Mayo, senior member of Capitol Resources, a full-service public affairs firm in Jackson.

“Legislators are faced with thousands of issues and we provide expertise and accurate timely information on a range of issues to help them make good decisions,” she said.

Tim Hawkins, market area vice president of Waste Management of Mississippi Inc., said retaining Medlin`s services was a good business decision.

“In today`s economy, with fewer people doing much more work than in years past, we need the support of resources in the field like Buddy, to help us stay abreast of any potential legislation that might affect us, or to help on a proactive basis with anything we may want to accomplish,” he said. “We can`t keep up with it on our own.”

Lobbyists expend more energy quashing bad legislation than getting good legislation passed, said Marty Wiseman, director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government.

“There`s a lot of ill-conceived legislation with unintended consequences introduced that if lobbyists can kill at the lowest level, a lot of stink is reduced,” he said. “That is clearly why lobbyists need to be on the job.”

Even though a handful of the state`s 220 lobbyists are heavy hitters with multiple clients, a majority of lobbyists are pulling double-duty during the legislative session.

“Small associations just can`t afford to have a lobbyist, so some of us wear two hats during the session,” said Betty Dickson, executive director of the Mississippi Nurses Association. “It`s something we do because of what we believe in so strongly.”

Lobbyists know how to navigate the hallways and back rooms of the state Capitol, a talent that is especially helpful during the 2004 session, which has been described as “precarious at best.”

“A lot of conspiracy theories are floating around the Capitol,” said a female lobbyist, who requested anonymity. “It`s gotten way out of hand and is fueled by people without better things to do. Some of it has to do with medical interests who endorsed House Speaker Billy McCoy`s opponent and the fact that McCoy operates very differently than former House Speaker Tim Ford. Also, Republicans have never really been organized before in this state, but boy they are now. Some of the Democrats just haven`t awakened to the fact that it`s now a two-party state. Then there`s the theory that lobbyists are bad, even though lobbying is an honorable profession.”

Anyone who tries to persuade a legislator, whether as a group or an individual, is considered a special interest, said Wiseman.

“Some would try to put a negative connotation on lobbyists and their function but I don`t see it that way. Particularly in a state like Mississippi, where legislators don`t have a large staff, information from lobbyists has become crucial. In the old days, lobbying may have meant wining, dining and good times to get commitments for votes. It has become much more sophisticated,” he said.

David Blount, spokesperson for Secretary of State Eric Clark, said many people simply do not understand the difference between a political action committee (PAC) and a lobbyist.

“A PAC is an organization that raises and spends money and makes donations to political candidates,” he said. “A lobbyist is a person who is employed to lobby elected officials who may or may not choose to donate money to a campaign. That`s the essential difference.”

Mayo, who worked for Gov. Ronnie Musgrove, a Democrat, and now works for a bipartisan firm, said she learned a valuable lesson while working for Congressman Sonny Montgomery on Capitol Hill: “As a lobbyist, I try to educate members on all aspects of the issues we present.”

Mississippi is not yet at the point of seeing mostly partisan lobbyists, said Wiseman.

“In Washington, there is so much big legislation that it`s expected, but we haven`t gotten there quite yet,” he said. “Successful lobbyists have to take votes wherever they can find them, whether it`s Republicans or Democrats or whatever. I heard one lobbyist describe herself the other day as ‘a Republicrat, I love everybody.’ Until we see who`s in charge and how everything settles out, that`s a good stance to have.”

Former Secretary of State Dick Molpus was instrumental in getting the Lobbying Law Reform Act of 1994 passed, which requires lobbyists to file two legislative expense reports and an annual report every year. Lobbyists’ clients are also required to file an annual report. Clark has aggressively overseen the lobbying law, and posts reports on its website for maximum public disclosure. Failure to file by the statutory deadline results in fines assessed by Clark`s office.

“We don`t regulate lobbyists,” said Blount. “Enforcement of the law falls in the hands of the attorney general.”

The political circle has its own brand of justice for unethical lobbyists.

“They won`t last long in Mississippi if they stretch or misrepresent the truth,” said Wiseman. “Lie one time too many and you’re through. Word gets around real quick you can`t be trusted.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne W. Jeter at mbj@thewritingdesk.com.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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