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Lobbying Reform in Delaware: One Step at a Time

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Last week, the Delaware legislature sent an interesting bill to Governor Jack Merkell: SB 185, a short, targeted piece of legislation that, if signed into law, will bring Delaware’s lobbying disclosure into the 21st century.

With the passage of SB 185, online disclosure will be the default for all lobbying reports and lobbyist registration. (Paper filing will only be acceptable in the (hopefully) rare event that the electronic filing system is offline.) Further, SB 185 requires that lobbyists “disclose the bill, resolution, or regulation on which they are lobbying...within five business days of contact with a relevant public official” -- which, while not real time reporting, is pretty darn close and puts SB 185 on par with the disclosure deadlines proposed in a federal bill Sunlight supports: the Lobbying Disclosure Enhancement Act, introduced last June.

Of course, these electronic requirements would mean nothing if they remained out of the public’s reach. That’s why one of SB 185’s most important proposals is to charge the Public Integrity Commission -- the agency that administers many of Delaware's ethics and disclosure laws and receives these filings -- with making these reports available online “in a manner in which they can be easily reviewed by bill, resolution, regulation, lobbyist or employer, and that regular updates be distributed to members of the General Assembly.”

These are solid -- but not sweeping -- reforms. Although it’s critical that Delaware -- and all state governments -- require electronic filing and public-facing databases of influence data (updated in real time), when it comes to the transparency of lobbying records and practices, Delaware still has a ways to go. Earlier this year, the state received an “F” in Lobbying Disclosure from the State Integrity Investigation, which issued report cards to all 50 states, grading them based on a quantitative analysis of anti-corruption and pro-accountability laws and measures. Delaware’s “F” earned it the rank of fourth worst in the nation on lobbying disclosure and dragged down its overall score to a C-. Although lawmakers cited the bill (and Governor Markell endorsed it) as part of their effort to improve the state’s score, SB 185 really only improves on the part of lobbying disclosure that Delaware was already doing well: general public access to disclosed information. Prior to SB 185, Delaware was publishing its lobbying reports online for free, but it was not making these documents available in a searchable database (nor was it releasing this info in as timely a manner as possible). SB 185 will change that.

What the bill won’t vastly change is what information lobbyists need to disclose. SB 185 could be strengthened by requiring that the names of the specific officials or lawmakers lobbied are disclosed or if it created provisions for enforcement mechanisms, such as independent audits of disclosure records.1 But just because 185 could be better doesn't mean that it isn’t worth the Governor’s signature: Policy, like technology, is iterative, and what SB 185 does to demonstrate Delaware’s willingness to use technology to support greater public monitoring can’t be underrated. Plus, SB 185 does require some new information be released: If made law, lobbyists will newly have to identify the specific bill, resolution or regulation they’re working on, a valuable addition to the lobbying information currently available to Delawareans.

SB 185 is an excellent example of a small but important step that all state legislatures should make to solidify public access to influence data, and it provides a great platform for Delaware to build on in its efforts to improve the quality and depth of its transparency laws. Let’s hope they do.

Full bill text available here.

1 More info on Sunlight’s Lobbying Reform platform.