“Dark money” is flooding into Idaho politics. Here’s how it works.
This story was first published in the Statesman’s Business Insider magazine on Nov. 19, 2014.
When the Idaho Legislature really needs to get something done, it can. Roy Eiguren has seen it with his own eyes.
Eiguren, a 62-year-old Boise lawyer and lobbyist, remembers a day in 2004 when lawmakers in a special session started at 8:30 a.m. and had an electric-utilities bill on the governor’s desk by 4 p.m. Eiguren was the primary draftsman on the bill.
“It was extraordinary, if you will, from a historical standpoint in terms of the rapidity with which the Legislature and governor acted,” Eiguren says. “And it was, I think, a great example where a lawyer who is a lobbyist can play a very significant role.”
At age 85, lawyer Bill Roden, of Boise, is a dean of the lobby corps - a former legislator who first dabbled in lobbying with an early 1970s bill that allowed grocery stores to sell wine. He worked on tobacco, wine and beer legislation then.
“I used to say I represented all the licensed vices - that was how I got started,” he jokes.
Roden has thought about retiring but just can’t seem to get around to it.
“What was going to be a one- or two-year project ended up being a lifelong career,” he says.
Now he represents a select few clients - CenturyLink, SelectHealth, Delta Dental and the Coeur d’Alene Tribe.
Eiguren and Roden are two of several attorneys who work in lobbying and government affairs, helping to draft, change or block laws and regulations.
Lobbyists aren’t cheap. Those in the Boise area generally charge a flat fee, based on what they think it will take to accomplish the client’s goal, Eiguren says. The “typical” fee is in the range of $15,000 to $75,000, and the law forbids bonuses for, say, pushing a bill through the Senate, he says.
What if the lobbyist fails to accomplish the goal he’s paid to do? “Then you have a very disappointed client,” Eiguren says.
Ken McClure, who works for Givens Pursley, says attorneys bring a unique understanding of the law to the policy arena. Most lobbyists are not attorneys. Those who are, McClure says, “may have a relatively more complete understanding of how the pieces fit together” in the legal and regulatory universe.
WHO ARE THEY?
Eiguren, Roden and other lawyers say they happened into lobbying and have witnessed a transformation in Idaho politics and Capitol culture.
McClure’s first crack at lobbying was in 1986, when he worked on a mandatory seat belt law that “a lot of Idaho legislators didn’t welcome, because it was viewed by many to be additional government requirements, a loss of freedom,” he says. “So it was an exercise in explanation, logic and a realization that the public would benefit.”
As a deputy attorney general in 1979, Eiguren started providing legal advice to the Legislature and developed a fondness for lobbying.
The first bill he worked on was in 1988 - a bill to regulate a type of electric-transformer oil that was an environmental hazard. He helped write the bill and then lobbied it through the Legislature, he says.
Eiguren now spends 80 percent of his time between legislative sessions on government relations, including lobbying the executive branch and legislators and helping clients land government contracts. His past and 14 current clients range from grocery retailers to Verizon.
Roden says one of his favorite issues to work on was telephone deregulation, starting with a bill in 1988.
He also gave some current lobbyists their start, including Boise’s Tom Arkoosh.
Arkoosh, 63, is a lawyer and part-time lobbyist.
“One of the first things Bill told me is, ‘Never be upset with an issue ... people involved in that issue,’ “ because today’s opponent could be tomorrow’s ally, he says. “That’s proven to be true.”
CAPITOL EXPANSION CURBS FRATERNIZING
The $130 million remodeling and expansion of the Capitol in Boise several years ago didn’t just add two underground wings and restore the facade. It changed how business is done under the dome, lawyer-lobbyists say.
It’s more convenient in some ways, less in others.
“When I was in the Legislature, your office was a desk on the floor of the House; there was no staff to help the legislators at all,” Roden says. “Everything was very, very accessible.”
Eiguren recalls the same ease of access as a lobbyist years ago. Today there’s less of the “fraternal organization” feel that permeated the Capitol before the renovation, he says.
“Now, legislators have their own offices,” Eiguren says. “Many ask that you actually set up a specific time for an appointment to meet with them, so that very substantially changes the way lobbyists have done business for a long period of time.”
Technology also plays a role. Cellphones and texting add a new dimension to the behind-the-scenes lawmaking process, lobbyists say.
WHAT ABOUT PERCEPTION?
Lobbyists claims that Idaho politics are less about backroom deals and quid-pro-quos than are politics elsewhere in the U.S.
Eiguren and others say money doesn’t buy votes, and lobbyists act more as information providers and bill writers. But lobbyist-lawyers do advise their clients on campaign contributions, he says - not just the legal and disclosure aspects of political contributions, but also which candidates may be most receptive to certain ideas, which legislators have committee or leadership roles and who votes in ways that are aligned with the client’s priorities.
“The bottom line is that there are any number of factors that one can consider in terms of whether they’re going to support a candidate or not, but I think it’s very important under the First Amendment as to who a client or any individual might contribute to,” Eiguren says.
Redrawn legislative and congressional districts have altered the financial reality of Idaho politics, Roden says.
“The cost of running campaigns has become so expensive that the demand or need for political contributions has really grown,” he says. “I don’t believe that plays a large part in how legislators respond, and frankly I would hate to think that political contributions [influence legislation that relates to] my clients.”
POLITICS CHANGED DRAMATICALLY
Republicans control the state today. The Legislature is heavily Republican. That wasn’t always so.
“We had very close margins in the Legislature in the ‘60s and, I think, in the early ‘70s,” Roden says. “People on both sides of the aisle, you had to talk to each other, and we had a good balance.”
McClure echoes that, saying the 1980s seat-belt law wasn’t politicized. “There was no ‘R’ or ‘D’ component,” he says. It was easier to get both sides of the aisle to agree than it is today, he says.
Roden, a Republican, thinks the Legislature could benefit from “more balance” in its party makeup.
Still, the sharp divide doesn’t really make it easier to predict where a lawmaker will come down on an issue, say lawyer-lobbyists.
“I would prefer a legislator, if he feels a certain way about legislation, that’s the way he ought to go,” Roden says. “I used to say, ‘I don’t need to be universally loved. I just need 50 percent.’ “