Establishing Lobbying Regulation Norms on the State Level

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While most of our lobbying reform efforts are targeted at the federal level, looking at different state lobbying regulations can help establish norms that inform our understanding of what works and what doesn’t.

I’ve taken an in-depth look at how states address questions regarding lobbyist registration thresholds and fees, reporting requirements and frequency, deadlines, and penalties. The research has culminated in a series of blog posts published over the last several weeks.

Registration Requirements and Fees

I first looked at state lobbyist registration requirements and fees. While the federal government has a relatively high registration threshold based on both time and contacts, the majority of states don’t have any at all. The states that do have registration thresholds base them on percentage of time spent lobbying, hours spent lobbying, amount of lobbying expenditures/compensation for lobbying activities, or a mix of the above.

The federal government does not impose registration fees for lobbyists, but most states do. They vary widely – from as low as $5 to $650 annually. Wisconsin and Texas top the list in terms of cost. The average fee is around $100, and about half of states charge $50 or less annually. These fees do everything from supporting state lobbying disclosure systems and ethics commissions to augmenting the general treasury. There was legislation introduced to establish a $50 annual registration fee on the federal level, but it didn’t end up going anywhere.

Registration Deadlines and Penalties

I then looked at registration deadlines and penalties. Fifteen days is the maximum leeway time any state gives a lobbyist to register, and most states have an even shorter grace period. By contrast, a person who has met the lobbyist threshold for registration has 45 days to actually register as a lobbyist on the federal level. However, legislation introduced in June seeks to reduce the federal grace period to 5 days, among other things.

Most states impose daily fees for late registration, although the federal system does not. Fees range from $5 with a cap of $100 in Minnesota, to $100 per day with a cap of $4,500 in Indiana. Each state has different costs and ways of calculating their late fees.

Lobbyist Activity Reports

I also looked at lobbyist disclosure reporting requirements and frequency, with the help of our policy intern Eric Dunn.

We collected copies of all of the state activity reports and analyzed them to identify common and uncommon reporting requirements. We found that most states require lobbyists to disclose the issue or government action they are trying to influence, as well as the name of legislators who receive or benefit from specific gifts. Most states allow lobbyists to file expenditure forms online and release these reports to the public. Nineteen states also publish searchable, sortable databases of registered lobbyists.

While all states require lobbyists to submit activity reports, the frequency with which these reports need to be filed varies. The federal government requires reports to be filed each quarter, and 26 states require reports at least as frequently. Eight states require activity reports only once a year. Seven states have stricter reporting requirements when the state legislature is in session.

More Resources

If you are interested in state level regulation and reform, the majority of our research on state level lobbying regulation is available on our OpenCongress wiki. Our Open States project is another good resource for state level data. My colleague Zubedah, a Grassroots Organizer here at Sunlight, also writes on state level topics frequently.

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