Staff Columnist

A buffet of special interests entertained lawmakers

The Capitol Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, March 12, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)
The Capitol Building in Des Moines on Wednesday, March 12, 2014. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette-KCRG TV9)

It’s been a few months since I last tallied up bucks spent by special interest groups to wine and dine, coffee and doughnut or lunch and lobby state lawmakers during the 2018 legislative session. At that time, the numbers were still rolling in.

I intended to check the final damage after lawmakers, at long last, adjourned. Today’s the day to report.

Turns out, according to “function reports” filed with the Legislature, groups of varying sizes, ambition and clout spent just over $380,000 on 125 events for legislators and Statehouse staffers. Of that total, just more than $238,000 was spent on food and $61,000 went for beverages. Much of the rest went to “other,” which most groups didn’t explain. The cost of two receptions in May sponsored by MedPharma, the state’s first licensed medical marijuana manufacturer, still have not been disclosed.

The overall tally comes in at roughly $2,534 per lawmaker, or about $844 per month for January, February and March, the prime time of reception season. For comparison’s sake, the average Iowa household receiving food assistance, or SNAP, gets $236.48 monthly.

The single biggest disclosed soiree was thrown by a state agency, the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship, in March. The agency’s annual Iowa Agricultural Leaders Dinner, which attracts guests from well beyond the Statehouse, came in at $46,904.25. This year the event featured U.S. Sec of Agriculture Sonny Perdue. The tab included $16,900 for food, more than $5,600 for beverages and $24,373 for “other.”

“Yes, it is the cost of renting the lighting, sound system, tables, chairs, china, silverware and centerpieces and the labor to have them set up. It also includes the service charge by the caterer and a 17.5% charge by the Iowa State Fair, where the event was held, of the total catered food and drink charge,” department spokesman Dustin Vande Hoef said in an email.

Among the more typical receptions, sponsored by non-government special interest groups, the winner was the Iowa Association of Realtors, who reported spending $21,170 on a reception at Embassy Suites down the hill from the Golden Dome of Wisdom on Feb. 6. Realtors bested the agriculture department with a $17,184 food bill and dropped $3,985.92 on beverages.

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The legislative reception calendar seems to ebb and flow with the session’s timeline. There are some large, spends events held in January to welcome our citizen lawmakers back to the Capitol. During February, events get smaller and are mostly held inside the Statehouse, typically in the morning or at midday, by various groups hoping to inform lawmakers of various issues or to remind them of the needs of X community. Then, in March, the spending ticks up again as the fate of scores of bills hangs in the balance.

In the old days, groups had to comply with Iowa’s strict gift law, limiting giveaways to $3 per lawmaker. But years ago legislators changed the rules, allowing groups to spend as much as they want so long as all lawmakers are invited and spending is disclosed.

In January, the total cost of functions topped $131,000, with roughly $110,000 spent in February. In March, and a few days of April, groups spent more than $137,000.

Aside from IDALS and the Realtors, several other receptions topped the $10,000 mark. A coalition of groups, including the Iowa Association of Electric Cooperatives and the Iowa Institute for Cooperatives spent $19,901 on a Jan. 9 reception at the State Historical Building. On Jan. 10, the Iowa Association of Business and Industry, including sponsors Alliant Energy, Cargill, International Paper and others, spent $17,685 on a gathering at the Iowa Tap Room.

The Iowa State Building and Construction Trades dropped $14,972.50, the Wholesale Beer Distributors spent $11,259 and the Dubuque Area Chamber of Commerce’s famous “Dubuque Night” at the State Fairgrounds cost $11,539.05.

The Iowa Federation of Labor AFL-CIO spent $10,359 on an event March 21 at Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino. But there was a problem.

“Also note that because of late debate no legislators were able to attend,” the union group reported in its disclosure. One more reason for unions to decry Republican legislative control.

At the other end of the spectrum are some frugality award winners. Three groups, the American Cancer Society, the American Massage Therapy Association and the Iowa Community College Trustees reported spending $0.00 on their Statehouse events. Among those who spent something, the frugality winner is the Iowa State Reserve Law Officers Association, which spent $23.76 on its March 8 gathering in the Capitol rotunda. The United Methodists were close behind at $25.

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The sticklers for accurate reporting prize goes to the Iowa Occupational Therapy Association, which dutifully disclosed its $5.98 beverage bill for Jan. 24.

So do all these confabs have much, or any, effect on legislative actions? It’s tough to tell for sure. There’s no reporting on which lawmakers actually showed up for any of these events. We have no video evidence of glad-handing or backslapping or buttonholing. We do have our suspicions.

Did the pricey reception it helped sponsor aid the electric cooperatives in lobbying for a bill slashing spending on energy efficiency programs, which ended up becoming a lousy law? How about the $3,500-worth of “pie, cookies and other dessert items for lawmakers and staff” the cooperatives delivered to the Capitol rotunda on March 14?

Well, let’s just say generosity certainly can’t hurt. And who doesn’t like pie?

Again, most receptions are relatively small, mostly informative, and happen in broad daylight. If you’re worried a sandwich or cinnamon roll can buy a vote, you ought to see lawmakers’ campaign finance disclosures. It would be good to know which lawmakers are attending these events. All it would take is a sign-in sheet.

But I do think some of these gatherings, especially the pricey ones, feed the persistent public lament that certain moneyed interests can buy easy access and an outsized voice in legislative affairs. Lawmakers could better defend themselves if their mouths weren’t stuffed with free appetizers.

No one should be shocked by any of this, but these numbers do help explain an atmosphere inside the Capitol bubble where slicing up the public pie to benefit narrow interests at the expense of the common good seems not only appetizing, but irresistible.

l Comments: (319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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