Saturday, December 27, 2014

The city ALMOST has a lobbying law - but still doesn't

Remember how the city was supposed to get a new lobbying law, way back in July?

The city ALMOST has a lobbying law — but still doesn't

Remember how the city was supposed to get a new lobbying law, way back in July?

Well, the bad news is, the law still isn’t being enforced. The good news is, enforcement is supposed to start pretty soon (although admittedly, we’ve heard that before). 

Quickly, here’s what a lobbying law is and why it matters:

Lobbying is the act of trying to influence government. Most lobbying laws require professional lobbyists to register and disclose the identities of their clients and the amount of their expenses so the public can know who is spending money to influence which official. The idea is not that lobbying is bad, but that a little sunlight will discourage shady doings.

Philly was the only big city in the country without a lobbying law until spring of 2010, when Council finally passed one. The law was supposed to go into effect in July. But two things happened:

1) Various groups in town raised objections to aspects of the law, arguing it wasn’t clear enough about what constitutes lobbying and what doesn’t, and;

2) The software that the Ethics Board, which is charged with enforcing the law, will use to register lobbyists, wasn’t ready to go.

On Thursday, Council passed an amendment to the lobbying law that will hopefully take care of concern number one. Among other things, it addressed questions raised by the Bar Association, the Chamber of Commerce and others about whether “routine” interactions between lobbyists and city government were technically lobbying. The amended law makes clear that activities like scheduling meetings or asking for forms are not lobbying and don’t need to be disclosed as such.

(Another concern with the original version of the law, and a very valid one, was addressed by the Ethics Board: Registration as a lobbyist was initially supposed to cost $500. That’s way too much. It will now cost $100.)

Concern number two, however, doesn’t appear to be resolved yet. The city’s Division of Technology still hasn’t finished testing the software that will allow lobbyists to register and disclose. In fact, it stopped testing it a few weeks ago. Our call to find out why hasn't been returned yet.

In any case, Shane Creamer of the Ethics Board says he’s been told testing will resume again in about a week, and, assuming the Law Department lends it's approval of the Board's regulations, which could be done as soon as this week, hopes things will be up and running a few weeks after that.

So technically, Philadelphia could have an actual, live lobbying law before the year is out. Technically, and hopefully.

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Every year, city government spends slightly more than $4 billion. Where does all that money come from? More importantly, where does it go? Are we getting the most bang for our tax buck? “It's Our Money” is a joint project between Philadelphia Daily News and WHYY, funded by the William Penn Foundation, designed to answer these questions.

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