How we pieced together a lobbying puzzle

Maine’s working to update how it presents campaign finance and lobbying reports, an acknowledgment that moving government transparency online is a long and ongoing process.

I took a closer look at ways of presenting that information in a story today, finding a different perspective on the lawmaking process in 2015.

It’s an important part. The disclosed amount paid to communicate with lawmakers in 2015 equaled one-third of the amount outside groups spent in Maine’s gubernatorial and statewide races in 2014.

But knowing the state’s top-paid lobbyists or top-paying lobbying clients is just one part of a complicated puzzle (that I’ve tangled with before).

Others, like the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting and the National Institute on Money in State Politics, have taken stabs at improving and presenting those disclosure reports, too.

Pete Quist, research director for the Montana-based watchdog group, summarized well the goal of that hunt: “You want to know what each client is spending, who they’re paying and what they’re lobbying on. Those three pieces need to be searchable and linked to the rest.”

Maine’s a pretty good place to make those links, with more detailed lobbying disclosure requirements than most states (take that as good or bad news).

But it still required some doing (with thanks to the Maine Ethics Commission for continuing data accommodations). Here’s what we needed:

  • Lobbyist compensation and expenditures by client (spreadsheet sent by request from the ethics commission)
  • Year-end PDF lobbying reports (online at Ethics)
  • Industry classifications for each lobbying client (self-assembled)
  • Database of submitted bills and last action on those bills (LegiScan)

The spending report let us home in on the top 50 lobbying clients. We then added in individual bills lobbied, from year-end PDF reports, and linked that information on individual bills from the law tracking site LegiScan.

The challenge was how to display all of that information, putting lobbying activity and the focus of that activity in one place.

The result was three different views of lobbying activity — by industry, by individual clients and by the legislation that earned the most specific attention.

And that led to some interesting places, like a continuing battle between doctors and insurers over state law that limits when a doctor can prescribe more expensive drugs, in a strategy for keeping down health care costs called “step therapy.” And the battle over waste management soldiered on.

Jonathan Wayne, executive director of the Maine Ethics Commission, said the commission’s internal effort to make that information more accessible is another step in a long-term process to improve disclosure.

And, of course, presenting that information is new ways is just the beginning of many stories.

Let me know what you think (in the comments or by email) about how the state should improve its lobbying disclosures and what particular views or insights on that information you find the most interesting.

Darren Fishell

About Darren Fishell

Darren is a Portland-based reporter for the Bangor Daily News writing about the Maine economy and business. He's interested in putting economic data in context and finding the stories behind the numbers.