The Law of the Land

Lobbyists ride roughshod over the legislative process, going so far as to write the bills that lawmkers pass

All of those issues will be up for consideration again this year.
The Super Lobbyists will be out in force. And the legislators? Oh, yeah, they'll be around, too.

So just what separates the Super Lobbyist from a mere mortal? Let's meet one.

Jack LaSota is a Super Lobbyist. He's got the clients, the cash and the clout. LaSota served as a state attorney general and chief of staff to then-governor Bruce Babbitt in the late 1980s. Over the years both before and after that, he and his firm--the latest incarnation is called Williams, LaSota & Miller Consulting Group--have represented dozens of clients. LaSota's best known for his representation of racetracks, schools and counties.

LaSota has championed reform. He served as legal counsel to the group that passed last year's Proposition 105, the "Voter Protection Act," which prevents the Legislature from changing initiatives passed by the people. But he sees nothing wrong with the power lobbyists have at the Capitol. LaSota describes the lawmaking process nonchalantly.

In a typical scenario, LaSota and one of his clients come up with the idea for a bill. LaSota writes the language himself, then finds a legislator who will let him open a "bill file" at the Office of Legislative Counsel, known as Leg Counsel. He works with the staff at Leg Counsel to craft his bill. He recruits other legislators to co-sponsor his bill. He shepherds the bill through the committee process, and convinces members to support it. If the bill makes it to the governor's desk, LaSota will be there to argue for it. And if it becomes a law, he'll likely be at the bill-signing ceremony.

The bill's sponsor, the legislator, is superfluous.
As one longtime member of the Legislature, who requested anonymity, puts it, "The legislator is sort of hands-off--just get the bill introduced, get it in final form, get my name on it, go and circulate it and get it in.

"It's all delegated out, and there's this remoteness that exists between the legislator and their own legislation. I've seen sponsors of legislation--when their bill comes up in the committee, there's a question that's asked, and they say, 'Well, ask Lobbyist Fred,' because the legislator doesn't have a clue."

So why is the legislator so clueless?
A number of reasons. For one, the Legislature is grossly understaffed. The Senate Democrats, for example, have only six full-time staffers. In the House, even the majority Republicans assign only one staffer to each committee, and the Democrats are sometimes forced to assign totally inexperienced interns to monitor committee activity. There's too much work; no one can catch every trick the lobbyists try to push through and warn legislators.

The lobbyists woo the staff, too. Super Lobbyist Allan Stanton and others host a luncheon each year at Phoenix Country Club for the dozens of secretaries who work in the House and Senate.

"Members have enough trouble keeping lobbyists off their doorsteps--and when they're buying their secretaries chocolate and taking them to lunch, it makes the secretaries feel rude to say no," says one legislative observer.

Term limits will also help make lobbyists more indispensable. Because of term limits, lobbyists will outlast members--and this will only get worse, when many legislators are pre-empted from running in 2000. Members are limited to four consecutive two-year terms.

Senator Chris Cummiskey, a Phoenix Democrat, says, "It takes two years just to understand what's going on around here. So if you are going to spend a fourth of your legislative time . . . with a lampshade over your head, it increases the influence of those who have long institutional knowledge but are there representing particular interests."

And finally, some legislators--whether they've been in office for two weeks or two years or two decades--are, simply, star struck.

"Some of the people down here haven't really had much of a life," says Phoenix Republican Senator Tom Smith. "They haven't been in business and industry or they haven't run their own business and they haven't been around a heck of a lot. So they get down here, and you can get swept up in the routine."

You know--reserved parking, titles, receptions. Lunches with spit-polished Super Lobbyists who know all the good restaurants in town.

Jack LaSota doesn't see the legislator as a clueless patsy. In the end, he observes, it's the legislator who has to sign off on the bill and the body must approve it, so as the lobbyist, he doesn't have total authority. As for the bill-writing process, LaSota takes a pragmatic approach.

"It seems to me you're going to be most successful if you have something pretty well-baked, because you've got something to show them other than just ideas; you've got actual text for them to take a look at," he says. "And you also make the job of the Leg Counsel theoretically easier, because you've got something down that they can tinker with, instead of asking them to write. I always find that it's easier to edit than to create."

What gives Jack LaSota the ability to create bills that might become laws? After all, he might be a good guy, but he wasn't elected by the people.

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