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Selling ideas in the state capital

By By Sid Salter
Aug. 15, 2001
Reed Branson, capitol correspondent for the Memphis-based Commercial Appeal newspaper did a remarkably good job of gathering and analyzing data on lobbying efforts in state government earlier this month.
Branson's work was quickly disseminated through the state by the Associated Press to other newspapers and to the state's broadcast media outlets. It was a great piece of work.
The story outlined a record $8 million in reported lobbying expenditures in Mississippi in 2000 with Branson pointing out that health care groups were the big spenders as an industry with over $1 million spent to sway legislative opinion.
Branson reported that all registered special interest groups, trade and professional associations and even groups like the Mississippi Municipal Association and the Mississippi Association of Supervisors spent a total of more than $90,000 on free meals and gifts for individual legislators and another $300,000 on receptions to which all legislators were invited.
Just friends
That averages out to an annual $517.25 per legislator for individual free meals or gifts from lobbyists and an annual $1,724.14 per legislator expended by lobbyists for legislative receptions. It's good to be a legislator.
But in the interest in shining the light on all the cockroaches in the kitchen, let me interject into Reed's fine work the fact that the Mississippi Press Association my trade organization and one that represents 99.9 percent of all state newspapers spent $23,419 lobbying the Legislature and other state officials in 2000. Our lobbyist is former House Ways and Means Committee chairman Charlie Williams of Senatobia.
In my opinion, the most embarrassing revelation in that last paragraph is how precious little MPA spends in representing our industry's interests in the Legislature. With open meetings and open records issues still on the table and the sporadic but inevitable attempts at legislative retribution against the media when they don't like the product of our work, we need a good lobbyist.
In and of itself, lobbying is no sin. It's part of the legislative process in the statehouse and on Capitol Hill. The alternative  in which business and industries, special interest groups, teacher and labor unions and anti-abortion and pro-choice lobbyists and the like are shut out is a government of exclusion, institutional ignorance and secrecy.
Abuses on both sides
It is those few legislators who succumb to the temptation to take too much and the few lobbyists who attempt to give too much that requires that the entire process be tightly and effectively scrutinized and heavily policed.
Clearly, there are abuses on both sides. The night life has claimed more than one legislator over the years. At the same time, I'm met lobbyists over the years who became jokes in the Legislature because they do precious little to represent their industries other than pick up the tab in a restaurant.
In the pure form, lobbying is the selling of ideas and points of view about those ideas to lawmakers and the general public. Lobbyists always sell, lawmakers rarely always buy that's the game as the political pie is divided.
Lawmakers who abuse the system should be punished. So should the special interest groups who pay the lobbyists to offer opportunities to abuse the system. It takes two to tango.
I've met some idiotic legislators over the last 20 years, but none dumb enough to sell out for a steak and potato and a double scotch. Campaign contributions are of course another story for another day.
Sid Salter is Perspective Editor/Columnist at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson and a syndicated Mississippi political columnist. Call him at (601) 961-7084, write P.O. Box 40, Jackson, MS 39206, or e-mail ssalter@jackson.gannett.com.