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A service for our readers outside the Northern Shenandoah Valley... a sampling of The Daily's political coverage, plus unofficial, 'reporter's notebook' stuff. And occasional dry humor...

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Location: Strasburg, Virginia

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Interest peddling: Virginia's legislature no stranger to persuasion; B1

This year's General Assembly will see about five lobbyists for every lawmaker

By Garren Shipley
(Daily Staff Writer)

There are a lot of nervous people on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. these days.

A high-powered lobbyist with connections to the very top of the Congressional leadership has signed a plea deal admitting to attempted bribery and one member of the House of Representatives has admitted to taking bribes and resigned.

That has some under the rotunda promising legislation that would reform the way lobbyists can attempt to influence the federal government. But lobbying isn’t just a Washington pastime.

There are plenty of people trying to exert influence over how states spends money and sets policy, too.

Interests as varied as taxicab operators to the National Rifle Association spent $952 million on lobbying state government in 2004.

From May 2003 to April 2004, they spent almost $14 million in Virginia alone, according to the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit government research group.

It’s not just policy groups and trade associations that hire representatives to plead their case before the legislature. Virginia Beach, Staunton and Norfolk are among the cities that have lobbyists registered for the coming year.

So do companies like American Express, Wyeth pharmaceuticals and 7-Eleven.

When the General Assembly convenes on Wednesday, there will be about five lobbyists for every delegate and senator walking the halls of the Patrick Henry Building, this year’s temporary capitol — 673 lobbyists for 140 legislators.

“That’s individuals, not total number of registrations that have come in,” said Chris Frink, who’s in charge of registering lobbyists with the Secretary of the Commonwealth.

Of course, there are a lot more than 673 interests lobbying the General Assembly at any given time. A number of lobbyists working in Richmond have more than one client.

“Some have only one client, some have as many as 15 or 20,” Frink said.

But gifts to legislators are much more closely controlled at the state level than the federal level. And the gifts aren’t nearly as spiffy, either.

Gifts have to be reported twice — once by the lobbyist or group that gave them, and again by the legislator in a report filed with the clerk of both chambers. The threshold for filing is $25 for outright gifts, $50 for gifts given in the form of entertainment.

Virginia’s regulations are better than average for states — the 16th strongest, tied with Alaska. Washington state was ranked as having the toughest laws, Pennsylvania with the most lax.

In 2004, the most recent year for which information was immediately available, three of the five biggest gift givers were state government — the House of Delegates, the Senate and the state itself, mostly in the form of travel to conferences and meetings.

Combined, the House and Senate gave about $71,000. The commonwealth picked up the tab for some $20,000 in travel for Gov. Mark R. Warner, most of which were trade or marketing trips.

Altria, the parent company of Kraft and Philip Morris tobacco laid out $25,399 in 2004. Most of that went to pay for a legislative reception and dinner, as well as NASCAR and Indy Racing League tickets for a handful of legislators.

The Virginia Sheriff’s Association paid for more than $8,000 in hunting trips for Sen. Kenneth Stole, R-Virginia Beach, out of its $20,000 in gift giving.

Unlike their federal counterparts, Virginia’s lobbying information is available to the public online. Anyone with an Internet connection can look up what lobbyist is working for what interest and how much they’re being paid at the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s web site.

The legislature convenes today.