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Tuesday, March 11, 2008
Posted 10:09 PM by

Lobbyists spent $53.5M on N.J. lawmakers in '07

Lobbyists gave just $31,666 in specific gifts to New Jersey lawmakers last year, compared to an estimated $2 million in undeclared gifts to their Pennsylvania counterparts.Lobbyists spent $53.5 million last year trying to sway New Jersey lawmakers, down $1.8 million from 2006, a new state report says.

I'd love to give you comparable numbers for Pennsylvania, but they don't exist. More on that in a bit.

Out of all that money, the lobbyists only passed $31,666 in direct benefits to New Jersey lawmakers, down from $45,500 in 2006 and from $79,509 in 1997, according to the records. Under state law, benefit passing includes meals, entertainment, gifts, travel and lodging.

The biggest recipient of that surprisingly small largesse was Assemblyman Upendra Chivukula, chairman of the Assembly committee overseeing telecommunications and utilities. He accepted $1,126 in gifts last year from lobbyists. All but $280 came from industries he oversees, according to the Associated Press.

Still, Ev Liebman, of the watchdog group New Jersey Citizen Action, told the AP, "It's very troubling when we have a system that allows special interests and their money to dominate the legislative process and to get the kind of access to legislators, particularly powerful legislators, that's simply not available to rate payers, those of us who pay the bills."

Across the Delaware River, Pennsylvania no longer breaks down its total lobbying numbers for the public to inspect thanks to a two-year-old lobbyist disclosure law, which appears to have done more to obfuscate lobbying expenditures than it did to expose them.

Pennsylvania does now have an online database of quarterly expense reports filed by lobbyists, but the regulations on how the lobbyists should fill out the state-mandated forms still are not finalized.

I do know, thanks to an Associated Press analysis of the state data, that lobbyists spent $37 million in Pennsylvania during the first six months of 2007, of which nearly $1 million went to state officials for meals, plane tickets, hotel rooms and other gifts.

Now, multiply that by two and compare it to the $31,666 spent by lobbyists in New Jersey.

What's the difference between the two states? New Jersey's law requires that every gift to a legislator from a lobbyist must be spelled out along with the exact amount of money spent.

Pennsylvania's law does not.

Am I wrong to think the Legislature and Gov. Ed Rendell's administration are selling us out, and to say that we now have the best government lobbying money can secretly buy?

For example, Pennsylvania offered the movie industry this year a 25 percent tax credit on TV shows and films that spend at least 60 percent of their total budget in the Commonwealth. The program's cost is capped at $75 million this fiscal year, which ends June 30.

How did Hollywood qualify for the break? Lobbyists Leslie Merrill McCombs, a former Fox TV reporter in Pittsburgh, and Mike Veon, a once-powerful Democratic state representative from Beaver County, lobbied for it on behalf of Lionsgate, a leading independent film and TV production company based in Santa Monica, Calif.

That isn't what angered state Sen. Jeffrey Piccola, chairman of the Senate State Government Committee, though.

It's the fact that McCombs didn't publicly declare that she was working on behalf of Lionsgate in her quarterly reports until after the tax break was granted. McCombs called it a "technical and brief noncompliance" that was later corrected.

"Clearly, we cannot permit lobbyists to hide what is spent on influencing the Governor and members of the General Assembly," Piccola (R-Dauphin) said in a Sept. 5 written statement. "Accountability is the key to reestablishing the public's trust in government. People who influence the law should not be above it."

Piccola's committee hired private investigators for $120 an hour to probe whether loopholes in the state's lobbying and ethics laws were exploited and to see if Veon violated a state prohibition against former lawmakwers lobbying their colleagues within a year of leaving office.

Veon was voted out of office in November 2006 after being the lone lawmaker in the state to vote against repealing the 2005 legislative pay raise. He filed to lobby on behalf of Lionsgate six months later, but state records say he didn't spend a dime.

In an e-mail to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Veon said, "I am confident that any review of the facts and the record will find that at no time ... have I lobbied anyone in the House of Representatives."

Meanwhile, McCombs lashed out at Piccola for suggesting she had an inappropriate relationship with Gov. Rendell. The governor has said he is friends with McCombs, her husband and son and has attended Pittsburgh-area sporting events with the family.

All of this was meant as but an illustration. The $75 million tax break is mere chump change by comparison to what's at stake by expanding the state's fledgling slot machine gamling industry so that it includes table games.

I did a cursory examination of the database last month and found that gambling interests spent at least $2.6 million last year to lobby lawmakers and Rendell's administration.

I say at least, because I suspect more money - possibly a lot more - is hidden from public view by virtue of gambling interests hiring one lobbyist, who in turn hired another.

Two final thoughts: Why didn't Piccola refer the movie tax break case to state Attorney General Tom Corbett, whose office has a seven-attorney public corruption unit? After all, Corbett is also leading a committee that's spent the last year drafting the disclosure regulations the lobbyists will follow?

In an unrelated ethics matter, though, Corbett said this week he would not return at least $35,000 worth of campaign contributions from now-indicted slots parlor owner Louis DeNaples. Despite a grand jury investigation last year, DeNaples spent $67,375 last year lobbying for "casino gambling."

Given all that, is there any wonder why there's a lack of leadership on reforming the state slots law in the Legislature?

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