The Law of the Land

How does a bill become a law? It's not the way you learned it in school.
The 44th session of the Arizona Legislature won't officially convene until next week, but the lawmakers are already huddling at the Capitol, planning their agenda, writing bills, lining up sponsors, strategizing votes.

No, we're not talking about the 90 legislators you voted into office in November. Instead, it's lobbyists who make the laws in Arizona. And not just any lobbyists. There are literally hundreds of people registered with the Secretary of State to lobby at the Arizona Legislature, but only a few are more powerful than a party caucus, able to pass laws in a single session.

We'll call them Super Lobbyists.
Not all lobbyists are created equal. Super Lobbyists use a powerful elixir of gifts, expertise, schmoozing and, yes, money to have their way with the Legislature.

"If you think it [the system] isn't being driven by contributions, you're foolish, because it is," says Democrat Paul Johnson, who lost to Governor Jane Dee Hull in last year's election. "And if it wasn't being driven by contributions, there wouldn't be millions of dollars being given to these campaigns."

Super Lobbyists represent many powerful clients at once, which exponentially increases their power when arguing for any one particular bill. Their power isn't found in the $100 contribution they give to Legislator X, but to the $100 contributions they give to a dozen legislators at Legislator X's request. Super Lobbyists run campaigns, they host fund raisers, they walk legislative districts to gather signatures on candidates' (usually incumbents') nominating petitions. And Super Lobbyists were prevalent on Senate President Brenda Burns' now-infamous list, circulated last summer, of lobbyists recruited to assist Republican candidates.

In many cases, legislators say they trust Super Lobbyists more than they trust their own staff. Legislative staff turnover is high; many Super Lobbyists have been at the Capitol for more than 15 years.

While most Super Lobbyists spread themselves thin, representing many different clients at once, there is one area where full-time lobbyists for specific companies wield great influence: utilities. (See page 18.)

Lobbyists, as we all learned in school, are so-named because they lurk in the lobby outside the House and Senate chambers, hoping to catch members on their way in to cast votes. But Super Lobbyists are embedded in the election and lawmaking process like termites, and so far, no reform put into place has stopped or even slowed them.

Previous reforms have increased disclosure and limited contributions, although those limits ($300 for legislators, $760 for statewide candidates) disappear when candidates put their own money into a race, giving lobbyists an opening to contribute vast amounts to a candidate.

The jury is still out on the latest and most radical reform, Proposition 200, passed last year by Arizona voters. The publicly funded system all but eliminates campaign contributions greater than $5 for participants. In the 1998 elections, some individual contributions ranged as high as $30,000 from a single contributor. Proposition 200 will be tested in the 2000 election cycle, although its supporters expect that a court challenge will soon stop it in its tracks.

Proposition 200 may limit the power of the Super Lobbyist, but only in terms of direct campaign contributions. They will still be able to wine and dine their favorite lawmakers. They'll even be able to use a loophole in the Proposition 200 law to continue to run independent expenditure campaigns on behalf of their favorite candidates and/or issues.

And the Legislature will continue to be horribly understaffed, racing to hear more than 1,200 bills in sessions lasting about 100 days.

Meanwhile, another reform, the term-limit initiative passed by Arizona voters that took effect in 1995, only increases lobbyists' power.

There are no term limits for lobbyists.
If you think the Super Lobbyists don't have anything to do with you, you're wrong. Most of the Arizona Legislature's actions don't make the news, and this is certain to be a dull year. There's no budget crisis, no StudentsFirst, no federal environmental mandates requiring the Legislature to take immediate action or lose millions in funding. The headlines may not be titillating, but that doesn't mean that the Legislature won't make decisions this winter and spring that will affect the lives of millions of Arizonans.

Last year, the Arizona Legislature considered bills that could have a dramatic impact on your life in countless ways, including:

* The new house you buy. In 1998, homebuilders and their lobbyists authored a bill that would have severely limited a homeowner's right to sue for shoddy construction. (See story on page 11.)

* The HMO that gives you health coverage. A powerful band of insurance company lobbyists has dissuaded lawmakers from enacting bills that would force HMOs to cover such vital services as mental-health care. (See story on page 15.)

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Patti Epler
Contact: Patti Epler
Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.