Lobbyist badges a welcome change

At first glance, Supervisor Chris Daly’s proposed legislation requiring registered lobbyists to wear identification badges anytime — and anywhere — that they talk to elected officeholders or city administrators does seem rather like “Big Brother.” But Daly offers some powerful supporting arguments, and we back him on this issue.

Lobbying has become a booming business in San Francisco. City law defines a professional lobbyist as any person earning $3,200 for direct lobbying services in three consecutive months or having 25 separate contacts with city officials during any two consecutive months. They are required to register with The City’s Ethics Commission and report their spending.

The amount of money spent on registered lobbying efforts in San Francisco has nearly tripled in the last decade. Only $2.7 million was reported spent for lobbying in 1996. But last year, $7.1 million in spending was reported to the Ethics Commission. If lobbyist badges can bring a bit more transparency to San Francisco government, we will welcome the experiment.

One of the more common ways in which municipal lobbyists earn their fees is by giving persuasive testimony at public hearings. When they speak at hearings they appear to be just everyday citizens who happen to be giving the best arguments and are acting friendly with city officials.

Daly raises the point that it is unfair to members of the public who attend hearings on issues personally important to them not to be able to identify speakers being paid to effectively represent somebody else’s viewpoint. He notes that a number of states, such as New Hampshire, already require lobbyists to wear identification and the results have been successful.

Today it has become commonplace for all sorts of corporate, governmental or academic facilities with security issues to require everybody entering to hang laminated photo IDs around their necks; so that their authorized level of access is instantly on display. Nobody finds this particularly controversial.

The Examiner would support a one- or two-year pilot program testing the effects of city lobbyist badges. However, any such law must be carefully written to reflect the way special interests actually work to influence City Hall. The legislation should dovetail with the Ethics Commission’s current drive to widen today’s standards for requiring registration as a professional lobbyist. Many of the most active lobbyists now do their work under cover of related activities. Common examples would be political campaign consultants working on issue referendums, attorneys for special-interest clients and public employee union officials seeking pay raises for their members. Operatives such as these should be required to register, too.

Lobbyist identification badges could be a small step forward in lessening undue pressure on city officials. So we say they are worth a try, as part of the Ethics Commission’s oversight strengthening program.

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