On The Record: Lobbying Researcher Diane Renzulli

 

Researchers at the Center for Public Integrity have spent years pouring over lobbying disclosure forms and state legislature campaign finance records.

The result is a new book, Capitol Offenders, and a companion study, The Fourth Branch, that look at how much influence special interests have in statehouses across the country.

In a Stateline.org interview, lead researcher Diane Renzulli discussed the project.

STATELINE.ORG: What did you expect to find when you began this research?

Renzulli : We didn't go into it with a preconceived notion. What we wanted to do way back when we started in 1995 was get information. At that time there was one newspaper in Indiana that had a database of campaign contributions and they weren't sharing it with anyone else. So we just wanted to get journalists to see this and use it as a springboard. We didn't have any expectations about what we would find we just went in and wanted to make the information available.

STATELINE.ORG: What should states take away from this book and study?

Renzulli: I think a theme that we keep on coming back to is disclosure or lack of disclosure in the states. Disclosure is intended to ensure public trust, and it is lacking. And until that disclosure is there people don't necessarily know what is going on in state legislatures. And I happen to believe what people don't know might hurt them and we need to have the disclosure laws up to par. I think that is the recurrent theme that we found in our research.

STATELINE.ORG: You found that the insurance industry was the biggest lobby across the states and after interviewing 5,056 state legislators you learned that 136 were working for the insurance industry. What conclusions did you draw from this?

Renzulli: Insurance, like many other industries, has a lot of lawmakers who work part-time at the statehouse and part-time in the insurance industry. It is just one of several industries where lawmakers have financial ties to an industry. Because insurance is heavily regulated by the states, it is one of the top issues as far as lobbying goes. What is more important is we need (to judge) the individual cases. We want to look at these personal ties on a case-by-case basis to determine in which instances lawmakers step over the line and inordinately profit from private interests.

STATELINE.ORG: CPI President Chuck Lewis, mentioned that no one is really watching the statehouses. Are there things that statehouse reporters could do, research they could do, and stories they could write that would improve this?

Renzulli: I think statehouse reporters are in a really tough spot. They've got thousands of laws to cover in a very short time period. I think they, like state lawmakers, are often understaffed and overwhelmed. Once again the theme we kept on going back to and seeing is that the more disclosure we have, the easier it is for us to see what is going on. I think that would be of interest to reporters covering state legislatures, to see what the state of disclosure is in their state. But I definitely understand how busy they are and how hard it must be to cover the statehouse while it's in session for two months out of the year.

 
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