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Analysis: Disclosure Rules Let Lobbyists Split Tabs and Hide Names

Lobbyists are required to report everything they spend on government officials, including expensive meals at fancy restaurants. But state disclosure laws allow lobbyists to split the bills to avoid naming whom they've wined and dined.

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You’ve split the check before, right? Gone into a restaurant with someone and cut the bill in half to share the expense?

That’s not how splitting works for lobbyists when Texas lawmakers and other state officials are at the table.

When lobbyists split the dinner tab at an expensive restaurant or after a pricey bottle of wine, it's not so the officeholders in attendance can pay their own share. It's so the lobbyists can stay under the state’s name-that-legislator limit.

Right now, that’s $90. If a lobbyist spends less than that amount entertaining a lawmaker, the lobbyist doesn’t have to name the lawmaker in the spending report filed with the Texas Ethics Commission. If it’s over $90, the names of the beneficiaries go in the reports, where the public can see them.  

Decision-makers eating and talking with people who hope to persuade them might not be anything to get excited about. The talking part is probably a good idea.

Lawmakers ought to listen to car dealers before they make a major change in the way cars are sold, to people who sell whiskey before they open the gates for new stores, to cab companies that think people without licenses should be kept out of the taxi business. And they ought to hear from people who want to sell cars, whiskey and rides but find themselves blocked by state laws that protect those industries from disruptive competitors.

This is supposed to be a running debate, whatever the subject. Lobbyists are salespeople, basically, paid to coax lawmakers and other government decision-makers that their ideas, products or arguments should prevail. What they do is legal and constitutionally protected.

That said, the interactions between government officials and the people paid to sway them can raise eyebrows without even stretching the law. They get an exemption from bribery law specifically because their spending is reported, but the reporting requirements allow them to hide the names of the participants.

In spite of the figurative “Don’t Feed The Animals” signs, the patrons of this particular zoo are allowed to feed the animals without saying which animals they have fed. The rest of us are left to wonder why the lions snap at some folks and purr at others.

Downtown Austin is thriving and full of events and restaurants and nightlife, all within a mile of the state Capitol. Some places are moderately priced. Some make you gulp. Wine and spirits are a whole different matter, easily dwarfing the cost of the food. And entertainment sometimes plays in, if there is a concert or a golf game thrown into the mix. An day or an evening of business can get expensive.

Lobby-paid meals, drinks and entertainment — and, under certain circumstances, travel and lodging — are exempted from state bribery laws. Lobbyists are required to report everything they spend on government officials; the idea is that the spending falls short of a bribe because the rest of us can see who was at the table and whether anything other than the facts and arguments might have had some influence on a decision or a vote.

But under current law, the people at the table decide whether to reveal themselves. The lawmakers being treated only get named in public reports when the spending reaches a certain amount per lobbyist.

That’s the setup for splitting. The law does not limit the overall amount being spent on food and beverages; it limits the amount a particular lobbyist can spend before he or she has to name the official being entertained. If the cost goes over the limit, another lobbyist can split the tab and bring both lobbyists under the limit. 

Next month, the Ethics Commission will decide whether to raise the amount of money lawmakers are paid for each day of a legislative session — called their per diem. It’s currently $150 per day, and would rise to $190 per day if the commission takes the recommendation of legislative leaders.

That, in turn, is tied to the name-that-legislator limit. If the per diem increases to $190, the limit will rise to $114.

One lobbyist can spend $90, two can spend $180, three can spend $270 and so on. If the new numbers are approved, that jumps to $114, $228 and $342.

Sometimes it happens on a grand scale. At the end of the 2013 legislative session, a $22,241 dinner for the House Calendars Committee at an Austin steakhouse was paid for with 65 different credit cards. The tab indicated that 121 people were fed and watered, but does not detail how many of them were legislators. The attendees got the mix right, if the object was to hide the names of the lawmakers who were there. The lobbyists reported their spending — for most, it was $340.07 — but didn’t have to name their official guests. They apparently had enough state officials in attendance to keep each lobbyist’s spending per person under the name-the-legislator trigger.

At least one bill has been filed to change the formula, unlinking the per diem amount from the name-that-lawmaker trigger and lowering the trigger amount to $50.

That would shrink the loophole without closing it. One lobbyist might have a harder time buying dinner for an unnamed lawmaker — at least at the prices of restaurants in downtown Austin.

The solution to that is already established. That lobbyist could still help the lawmaker sneak around — they’d just need more splitters to join them. 

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