States Grappling with Lobbyists' Texts to Legislators

Article excerpt

From his seat near the back of the Oklahoma House of Representatives, state Rep. Joe Dorman has a pretty good view of the world.

Occasionally, a fellow lawmaker will drift over to discuss an issue.

Once in a while, a page will bring in a small slip of paper requesting Dorman's presence in the lobby, outside the House chamber.

But a lot of the time, if you look closely, you'll find Dorman on his computer, reading legislation, posting updates on Facebook or sending and receiving tweets on the Web site Twitter.

You'll also find him sending and receiving text messages.

"I try to post on Facebook and let people know what's going on," said Dorman, a Rush Springs Democrat. "But a lot of time, I get responses back from people who want to join the argument."

He also gets texts from lobbyists.

"Occasionally, you'll see a lobbyist who has your number and they are aware of your side of a position," Dorman said. "They may send in talking points for you to use in your debate or send you a hostile question that you can use."

Lobbyists, it seems, no longer need the lobby.

"I think a lot of them have gotten so use to technology that texting is the next stage," Dorman said.

With the development of smart phones and the public's acceptance of texting, lobbyists working the Oklahoma Legislature can place themselves virtually on the floor of the state House or Senate via their phones - despite rules saying otherwise. Nationwide, the practice has become so widespread that it has political scientists and some lawmakers worried.

"Texting, I would think, puts lobbyists right there on the floor," said Jim Davis, a political science professor at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. "You could literally stand on the floor and have your debate texted to you. Instead of being a legislator, you'd simply be a mouthpiece."

Davis isn't the only one concerned.

In California, the state Assembly's new speaker, John Perez, said lawmakers would no longer be allowed to trade text messages with lobbyists while voting, debating or otherwise "doing the people's business."

"Californians expect us to pay full attention to the issues and to each other," Perez said, in a story published by the San Jose Mercury News. "They need not worry that special-interest lobbyists are secretly sending messages of support or opposition to us while we deliberate."

The issue also has become a problem in Maine.

There, the House of Representatives is considering a rule that, its sponsor said, "seeks to prevent the abuse of secret, instant communications by lobbyists who closely monitor actions by legislators in session."

"It's an effort to deal with a serious problem that will only get worse if it's not dealt with now," said Maine Democratic state Rep. Herbert Adams, the bill's sponsor.

Across the country, legislatures are grappling with the issue.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 30 states have restricted the use of electronic devices, such as pagers, cell phones and desktop printers in legislatures while two states - Colorado and West Virginia - prohibit members from receiving text messages during the legislative session.

"In some states the officials say they are concerned about decorum," said Angela Andrews, an NCSL policy associate. "Other states said they were concerned about secrecy. It just depends on the state."

In Oklahoma, while lobbyists are prevented from being on the floor of either legislative body when the Legislature is in session, no rule or statute prevents a lobbyist from sending text messages to a lawmaker during the session. …