Why Ohio Statehouse lobbyists don’t have to reveal all they spend to influence lawmakers: Thomas Suddes

September 1, 2018

Why Ohio Statehouse lobbyists don’t have to reveal all they spend to influence lawmakers: Thomas Suddes

Nothing grabs a voter’s attention faster than the word “scandal.” That is why Ohio Republicans, riding high for so long in the General Assembly, may be getting antsy as Nov. 6′s election looms: The Ohio House’s 99 seats and half the state Senate’s 33 seats are on the ballot.

Republicans have run Ohio’s House for all but two of the last 24 years.

Ex-Ohio House Speaker Cliff Rosenberger, a Republican from Clinton County’s Clarksville, has not – repeat, not – been charged with any wrongdoing. But a federal grand jury is evidently reviewing Rosenberger’s dealings with Statehouse payday loan lobbyists.

For 15 months, Rosenberger’s House failed to act on a long-sought payday loan reform. On April 12, Rosenberger resigned.

On June 6, Republicans, who rule the House 66-33, finally elected a new speaker (Republican Rep. Ryan Smith, of Gallia County’s Bidwell). The next day, June 7 – 65 weeks after Reps. Kyle Koehler, a Springfield Republican, and Michael Ashford, a Toledo Democrat, had introduced the payday loan bill (House Bill 123) – the House finally passed it 71-17, and Gov. John Kasich has signed it into law.

Whether grand jurors charge anyone with wrongdoing (and a charge is not a conviction), the General Assembly is way overdue for a kind of political colonoscopy. Too many people have been pushing the ethics law’s limits.

Term limits are part of the reason. They apply to legislators, not lobbyists. Term limits mean many legislators have information deficits. But lobbyists don’t. And knowledge really is power.

Meanwhile, special interests spend immense sums of money in Columbus on lobbying and on donations to General Assembly campaigns.

Two factors hide the scale of that spending from hometown voters. First, why do state Sen. John Doe or state Rep. Mary Doe hold fundraisers in Columbus rather than (or besides) fundraisers in his or her district? Because Statehouse lobbyists are in Columbus. Yes, the donations are reported, eventually, but the home folks don’t see the wretched excess of, say, $5,000 (or larger) donations to “chair,” “host” or “sponsor” a legislator’s or caucus fundraiser.

Second, while Ohio requires Statehouse lobbyists to report what or whom they’re lobbying for or against, they aren’t required to report real-world spending and compensation.

Contrast that with California, where laws passed by its legislature or ballot issues initiated by voters require lobbyists to report what Ohioans can’t know about Columbus lobbying.

True, thanks to Statehouse reporters, Ohioans do know that Rosenberger’s globetrotting as speaker is something federal investigators are looking at. Example: a 2017 London junket sponsored by a Republican political outfit named GOPAC (“Educating and Electing a New Generation of Republican Leaders”).

Also on the trip to London were two lobbyists for an auto-title lender (LoanMax, or Select Management Resources, of Alpharetta, Georgia) and an executive of payday lender Advance America, of Spartanburg, South Carolina.

As noted, Ohio doesn’t require lobbyists to report how much they’re paid or what they really spend. But so far, during the California Legislature session that began in January 2017, Advance America reported it has spent $191,447 in “payments made ... to its own in-house lobbyists or to lobbying firms.” (By way of comparison, that’s about $15,000 more than the $175,957 that Cardinal Heath, the Fortune 500′s largest Ohio company, has reported spending on California lobbying during the same period.)

It’s way past time for Ohioans to get full disclosure of who’s spending how much to influence the men and women of the General Assembly. They’re supposed to represent the public interest, not private interests. Lately, there seems to be some confusion about that – at the Statehouse. 

Thomas Suddes, a member of the editorial board, writes from Athens.

To reach Thomas Suddes: tsuddes@cleveland.com, 216-999-4689

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