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The Law of the Land

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This month Bahr begins her fifth session at the Legislature, advocating for green issues.

Yes, she says, the difference between herself and the Super Lobbyists is about money. Bahr spread $85 among three candidates during the 1998 election cycle. The Sierra Club's PAC gave a total of $300.

But it's not just about putting dollars into campaign coffers. For the most part, Bahr is alone at the Legislature, the Sierra Club's only paid state lobbyist and often the only environmental lobbyist at all. On any given issue, she may be up against behemoth business interests, like the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, which has a lineup of powerful lobbyists.

The Sierra Club has 11,000 members in Arizona, and in the past, Bahr has encouraged members to come to the Legislature to testify--but that is often disastrous.

"We've had volunteers in tears," she says. "They're just not used to how mean the legislative process can be."

Herb Guenther, a Yuma Democrat, served a term in the House in the early Nineties and is returning this year as a senator. He agrees that members of the public aren't always treated well at the Capitol.

Of his time in the House, Guenther recalls, "It was kind of like we were being put out by taking public testimony."

He admits it's easier to listen to veteran lobbyists, but says that's more because of their polished speaking style than their fat pocketbooks and friendly faces.

The lobbyists are "much more direct because they've had much more practice," Guenther says. "They know what to say and what not to say."

Michael Josephson, president of the nonpartisan Josephson Institute of Ethics in Marina del Rey, California, teaches ethics courses to legislators around the country. He tells them to imagine they are judges, not legislators.

"Imagine a judge who's about to decide a very important case. And all of the sudden you find the guy from the other side is having a private meeting with him in his office," Josephson says.

That's what happens when a lobbyist gets access to a legislator. Add campaign contributions, golf tournaments and free meals into the mix, and you have a recipe for trouble, Josephson says.

The dangerous part isn't the campaign contribution itself, he adds. It's what that contribution buys: time. "The opportunity to persuade, to cajole, to ingratiate. Now, all of these things are legal, but they obstruct the capacity of the decision-maker to make an objective judgment."

And that's just compounded by the fact that the Arizona Legislature is understaffed and meets part-time, often rushing to conclude its regular sessions in less than 100 days.

"The system is not well-designed to yield intelligent, objective judgments," Josephson says. "And if we don't adjust the system, even good people find themselves making judgments on inadequate information. Because even a fairly honest lobbyist is not going to tell you all the downsides."

Sandy Bahr says it's the subtlety of the Super Lobbyists' influence that makes them so unstoppable.

"It's not a direct quid pro quo, and that's why it's so difficult to achieve any kind of real reform," she says. "It's sort of like the discrimination we have now instead of the segregation we had back in the Fifties and Sixties."

Change is not coming easy. Every legislative session, someone sponsors a bill that would prohibit elected officials from taking gifts from lobbyists. Proposition 200 could have an impact on campaign contributions, but lobbyists will still use independent expenditures to get around the law.

In fact, there hasn't been a reform yet that lobbyists haven't been able to get around. Bahr is setting her sights on plans to put an initiative on the Arizona ballot in 2000 that would create a redistricting commission with the goal of stopping gerrymandering. That, she says, would force members to be accountable to their constituents--or risk defeat.

Josephson's solution? Make the lobbying process more public. Make sessions longer and include more public hearings, and hire more legislative staff.

"If you're going to have government, you need to give the appropriate tools and resources to get the job done right," he says.

"I don't want to cast stones as an outsider, but Arizona's had some real problems with governors and legislatures, and the fact is you need an environment that protects you against the negative influences that inevitably come when there's a lot of money and power to be had."

Contact Amy Silverman at her online address: [email protected]

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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.