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  • Go back to Tracker -- Winter 1999

    Tracing the impact of Arizona lobbyists
    By Patti Epler and Amy Silverman
    Phoenix New Times

    Everybody knows special interest groups finance state legislative races, right? So another story merely detailing campaign cash and where it comes from seemed, well, pointless. But the end of campaign season means the start of the legislative session, so we decided to try to connect campaigns to legislation in a way that might seem more real to the average person. We wanted to show readers how lobbyists impacted ­ in many cases, actually authored and shepherded ­ legislation that affected people's lives in everyday ways, and why they get away with it.

    To that end, we took a deeper look at how lobbyists have ingratiated themselves in so many, many ways to Arizona lawmakers. And, most importantly, we attempted to demonstrate how this political partnering affects everyday life.

    Our project included an overview story showing that Arizona lobbyists are not only cash cows for campaigns. They also serve on and direct campaign finance committees, they host fundraisers, they spring for lunch, dinner, staff picnics and air fare to political conferences ­ and the list goes on. Come January, they get to write the bills that their favorite legislators tend to rather mindlessly push through the system.

    We looked for bills that had been pushed by particular lobbyists (Super Lobbyists, we called them) and special interest groups last year and that were likely to come up again this year. Then we figured out who was on which side of what bill, and what role those lobbyists had played in legislative campaigns and legsilators' lives.

    We ended up with four sidebar stories that told in about 40 very readable inches each, exactly how lobbyists and campaign contributors affect the home you buy, the water you drink, the taxes you pay and your health care. Each sidebar included a separate breakout, displayed down the outside edge of the page, of the influence these lobbyists wield: campaign contributions, big clients, gifts. More detailed campaign finance information was displayed in a double-truck package of charts and graphics.

    Truth be told, we started this project in late August, thinking wešd get it together before the November elections ­ you know, give the voters something to think about. In fact, we ran up against the same old public records problems that you've read about before.

    One true hindrance to following the money on campaigns is the reporting deadlines for candidates. By the time they file and you get the records, the election is over. We discovered that in order to report and write a pre-election story, we'd be using campaign reports covering the period through September 30. But much of the significant contributions and expenditures are commonly made in the last few weeks before the election. In other words, we'd be about a month behind.

    So the project became a legislative preview piece. The legislative session starts January 11; the post-general campaign reports are due December 3. Our story would run January 7. Plenty of time, right? Ha!

    Our conundrum: How do you know which pieces of legislation to write about when you don't know who gave what money to whom? Up until our deadline, we were constantly shuffling and reassessing our reporting on the legislative end, as we slowly learned more from the campaign finance side of things.

    We bought the Secretary of Statešs database for $35. It was finally updated with most, although not all, December 3 filings by December 14. Our good friend Steve Doig, formerly a computer-assisted reporting specialist with The Miami Herald and now a journalism professor at Arizona State University, downloaded the thing, extracted what we wanted and transformed it into something we could do on our own computers. It took him a day.

    Still, the data was in serious need of clean up. Names were spelled inconsistently, political action committees were listed inconsistently (for instance, AT&T, A T & T, A.T. & T., AT and T; it is extremely time-consuming to make every entry the same. If you don't, they don't add up, at least not on our Excel 97 program.)

    We spent days cleaning up the data before we could even begin to nail down who were the biggest contributors and which candidates were the big recipients. Then we spent more days narrowing down our computer runs to include specific lobbyists, their associates, their clients, employees of big contributors and lobbying firms, among other things.

    At the same time, we interviewed dozens of legislators, lobbyists, staff members and people who had been involved in legislation. There was no shortage of fine examples of finagling on the part of lobbyists. But the real task was finding those few choice bills that really brought it home for people who aren't fluent in the wacky ways of the legislature ­ and then tying that back to the Super Lobbyists, via their contributions, fund raisers, gifts and anecdotal examples of their involvement in the drafting, pushing and, ultimately, passage of the legislation.

    Let's just say that a whole lot of reporting ended up on the cutting room floor.

    We spent hours at the Secretary of State's office, looking at lobbyist and PAC records which are not available online or through the database.

    This was made even more frustrating by the fact that the public record is shoddily maintained. And we're being generous.

    Our colleagues thought we were nuts as we toiled away through the holiday season, but in the end, the public response was the kicker: The little guy loved it.

    And as for the lobbyists? Well, there were quite a few who were upset with us. Not because we labeled them as obnoxiously-influential-power-hungry-money-spewing Super Lobbyists, but because they didn't make the list.

    Contact Patti Epler at (602) 229-8451 or pepler@newtimes.com. Amy Silverman can be reached at (602) 229-8443 or asilverman@newtimes.com