A proposal to change the definition of "lobbyist" drew praise from the business community and scorn from Democrats and a state regulator Friday at the House Judiciary Committee.
House Bill 106, introduced by Anchorage Republican Rep. Lesil McGuire, would give lobbyists 40 hours a month with lawmakers before having to register with the Alaska Public Offices Commission.
Lobbyists now are required to register with APOC if more than four hours is spent with lawmakers in a 30-day period. They also must pay a $100 registration fee.
McGuire noted in a sponsor statement that: "Many business-related issues considered by the Legislature or Administration, that can have far reaching effects to businesses around the state, can be very complicated and time consuming to address thoroughly."
McGuire said the intent of the bill is to give business owners and company employees more meaningful contact with legislators.
APOC says the bill would exempt roughly 80 percent of lobbyists now registered.
"I think the bill goes too far," said Tammy Kempton, a lobbyist regulator for APOC.
She noted that a plan in the senate to make the requirement 80 hours within a 30-day period would remove almost all lobbyists from the books.
Both bills were introduced at the request of the Alaska State Chamber of Commerce. The organization represents about 700 businesses and 35 chambers of commerce throughout the state.
State Chamber of Commerce President Pamela La Bolle, a full-time lobbyist during the legislative session, said the group is pushing for a plan by Fairbanks Republican Sen. Ralph Seekins that would make the requirement 80 hours.
Seekins, who owns a car dealership in Fairbanks, has lobbied the Legislature since the early 1980s for groups such as the state Chamber of Commerce and statewide car dealers associations.
La Bolle argues that business owners who register as lobbyists with APOC must disclose whom they've done business with and provide financial information to APOC for public scrutiny.
"You're telling your competitors who your business clients are," La Bolle said, adding that the registration fee lobbyists must pay APOC is nothing more than a tax on the business community.
Lobbyists also are restricted from serving on campaign boards, hosting fund-raising events, or contributing to legislative campaigns outside their own district.
The State Chamber of Commerce has filed suit in Anchorage Superior Court against APOC on grounds that the restrictions concerning campaign activity also violate the First Amendment and equal protection under the U.S. Constitution.
The lawsuit is expected to be heard in April.
Anchorage Democratic Rep. Les Gara, who sits on the Judiciary Committee, said the bills would prevent most lobbyists from having to register, thus allowing them to contribute money to candidates running for statewide office.
"This isn't about access to government. There's no law that stops anybody from talking to a legislator," Gara said. "There are laws that say if you are a lobbyist you can't hand over bags of money to legislators, and those are good laws."
Gara noted that changing the regulations to the 40-hour requirement would give lobbyists 160 15-minute visits with lawmakers a month and 640 visits a session.
"I have no interest in letting lobbyists have that much access to me," Gara said.
Kempton, with APOC, said both proposals would be almost unenforceable.
"The worst thing for us if this bill passes is going to be trying to figure out how to enforce 40 hours," she said.
Kempton noted that when complaints are received at APOC, regulators have to call legislators to determine how much time the lobbyist spent with them over the course of a month.
"It's almost impossible to prove or disprove four hours; trying to prove 40 that way is going to be impossible," she said.
The House Judiciary will hear further testimony on HB 106 this week.
Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.