Sen. Phil Baruth, left, questions Sen. Jeanette White about a lobbyist disclosure bill Tuesday on the Senate floor.
This happens just about any time a campaign finance or lobbying bill reaches the Senate or House floor: When legislation hits lawmakers close to home, nearly every one of them has thoughts, questions and criticisms about what it will or will not do.
So it was Tuesday as the Senate debated S.93, a bill that would require those seeking to influence legislation to share more information about who’s spending what.
“Our restrictions on lobbyists are minimal,” Senate Government Operations Committee Chair Jeanette White (D-Windham) told fellow senators. “S.93 is a slight constriction without restraining free speech.”
The idea, she said, was to require anybody spending $1,000 or more on advertising intended to influence the legislative process to make clear in the ad itself who's footing the bill. Within 48 hours, they would have to publicly disclose that information on the secretary of state's website.
Lobbyists would also have to file more frequent reports about who pays them how much for their day-to-day advocacy in the Statehouse. Under current law, they must disclose that information just three times a year; they go from January to May, the heart of the legislative session, without filing a report.
Senators proceeded to pepper White with questions that made it sound as though they were deeply committed to shedding light on political influence, but concerned it would be too hard, too complicated, too confusing to change the process.
“Would this be considered advertising?” Sen. Dick Sears (D-Bennington) asked, holding up a flier on clean water that been stuffed in legislators’ mailboxes.
What about the candy that a local credit union puts in legislators’ boxes, Sears asked.
“I don’t think that would be covered,” White said, emphasizing that the goal was to require those making large ad buys trying to sway public opinion to fess up about who’s bankrolling the effort.
What about lobbyists who pay to attend political action committee fundraisers during the legislative session, asked Sen. Kevin Mullin (R-Rutland).
That’s a whole other issue, White responded.
Sen. Phil Baruth (D-Chittenden) questioned why the bill seemed to allow those buying an ad to list a lobbying firm as a source, rather than the lobbyist’s client.
Fair question, White said. “We could make it clear that it’s the employer,” she said, suggesting that could be amended before the Senate takes a final vote on the bill Wednesday.
In the end, the Senate voted Tuesday to advance the bill without dissent.