Lawmakers and lobbyists traverse the Capitol's first-floor hallway during the 2019 legislative session. Credit: John Adams / MTFP

HELENA — Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan told a legislative committee Tuesday that lawmakers should consider updating state lobbying rules to bring them “into the 21st century” by, for instance, requiring electronic filing for lobbying reports and clarifying whether regulations apply to “grassroots” lobbying like social media campaigns.

“You will find the word ‘telegraph’ in the current code as far as what lobbyists should be reporting — telephone and telegraph expenses. You won’t find the word ‘internet’ in there,” Mangan said.

“You will find the word ‘telegraph’ in the current code as far as what lobbyists should be reporting — telephone and telegraph expenses. You won’t find the word ‘internet’ in there.” —Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan

Lawmakers on the State Administration and Veterans’ Affairs Committee voiced concern about the cost of administering new lobbying regulations, but voted to study the issue over the coming year and potentially draft bills for consideration in the 2021 Legislature.

“I agree that disclosure is good. My challenge is, if we don’t provide funding for you to look at all these reports, do they just become pieces of paper that are out there?” said Sen. Janet Ellis, D-Helena.

Much of the regulatory framework around lobbying Montana lawmakers dates to a 1980 ballot initiative, I-85, said COPP attorney Jaime MacNaughton. While the measure passed with support from more than three-quarters of voters, she said, large portions of the initiative were ruled unconstitutional in subsequent court challenges. Another ballot initiative, I-153, passed in 2006, preventing former lawmakers and high-level state officials from becoming registered lobbyists for two years after leaving office.

MacNaughton also said that the number of registered lobbyists in Montana has fallen over the past decade, down to 389 this year from 919 during the 2001-02 biennium. The shift, she said, appears to be the result of individual lobbyists increasingly contracting with multiple organizations instead of representing the interests of a single client.

Montana’s current law requires lobbyists and their employers to file disclosure paperwork when $2,600 or more is paid for their services. Required filings include information about how much is spent to compensate the lobbyist, the issues they lobbied on, and how much lobbyists spent on their work — for example, the cost of picking up a dinner tab for lawmakers.

As the way influence is peddled in the Capitol evolves with technology, however, the law may not be keeping up. During this year’s legislative session, for example, an airline industry association opposing an aviation fuel tax increase to support rural airfield maintenance ran a #StopJetFuelTax campaign with paid promotion on Twitter, and ultimately had its messaging picked up by the official Senate GOP account. At the time, Mangan told Lee Newspapers that the campaign, considered “grassroots” lobbying, isn’t a reportable expense under the current code.

Additionally, while Montana has required candidates for elected office to file campaign finance reports electronically since 2016, lobbyists are still allowed to comply with disclosure requirements by submitting materials in hard-copy form. While scans of those filings are available on the COPP website, Mangan acknowledged Tuesday that hard-copy filings present a challenge when reporters or other citizens want to examine how lobbying dollars are spent in Montana.

Mangan directed his staff to stop typing hard-copy forms into the COPP’s computer system this year, telling Montana Public Radio that data entry was taking too much staff time that political practices staffers could instead put toward making sure candidates are in compliance with election rules.

The current system also creates frustration for lobbyists themselves, who often want to scope out who is lobbying for whom in the Capitol, said Webb Brown, representing the Montana Society of Association Executives at the committee meeting Tuesday.

“Electronic filing is a must,” Brown said.

Without lobbying reports available as spreadsheet-style data, Montanans interested in their contents have to examine each monthly or post-session filing individually, doing their own math to obtain even basic figures like the amount spent lobbying by a particular organization. In order to provide the public with a $6.5 million estimate for the amount spent lobbying the 2019 Montana Legislature, for example, MTPR reporter Corin Cates-Carney described spending hours compiling hundreds of individual reports.

Electronically filed campaign finance figures, in contrast, are more readily available even during election season, which Mangan said is a product of state laws designed to make sure that information is available to the public “basically in real time.”

“It’s almost the opposite with lobbyists,” he said. “A good portion of that transparency doesn’t come until after the legislative session.”

Eric came to journalism in a roundabout way after studying engineering at Montana State University in Bozeman (credit, or blame, for his career direction rests with the campus's student newspaper, the Exponent). He has worked as a professional journalist in Montana since 2013, with stints at the Great Falls Tribune, Bozeman Daily Chronicle, and Solutions Journalism Network before joining the Montana Free Press newsroom in Helena full time in 2019.