With Oregon Capitol closed, lobbyists struggle to lobby without a lobby

A sign informs visitors of the Oregon State Capitol’s closure to the public on Wednesday, Feb. 24. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

An impromptu five-minute conversation can be politically effective in the halls of the Oregon Capitol.

Such encounters have long been crucial for the army of Oregon lobbyists hoping to get a moment with a state legislator.

Paloma Sparks, the vice president of Oregon Business and Industry who serves as the group’s lobbyist, described her practice of parking herself outside of a committee hearing or a legislator’s office. Once the legislator emerged, she could walk with them to their next appointment or committee hearing. 

“I can give a whole spiel about concerns I have about their bill,” said Sparks, who has been a lobbyist since 2009. 

Such conversations might lead to a longer session with the legislator’s staff that could change wording in legislation.

But that personal style of lobbying has been checked by the pandemic. The Capitol has been closed since last March to the public – and to lobbyists.

Now, those representing everyone from acupuncturists to veterinarians must make do with text messages, emails and back-to-back video conferences.

Lobbyists now have to do their work without a lobby.

Interviews by the Salem Reporter with 10 lobbyists revealed that the hefty virtual workload caused by pandemic restrictions has significantly changed the legislative process. Lobbyists say much of their communication now happens over thousands of text messages and emails while clamoring to get time on legislators’ already packed schedule of Zoom meetings.

Now, lobbyists have to book virtual meetings weeks in advance for conversations that would normally take five to 10 minutes. Some lobbyists find themselves playing phone tag just to ask a legislator a quick question.

“Some of them just don’t respond,” said Sparks.

The new way of communicating has slowed the legislative process and made it more cumbersome, lobbyists say.

Nearly 4,000 pieces of legislation on a broad range of topics are expected to be introduced this session, more than legislators have faced since 2009. The increased work and new dynamics likely will affect which bills are viable and which could require corrections in future sessions. 

‘It’s people and information’

Lobbying is big business in Salem.

According to state records, there are 1,822 lobbyists that represent a range of interests including the local city hall, the ACLU, giant corporations such as Apple and 7-11, and specialty industries like wine growers. Lobbyists attempt to influence legislative action and get in the good graces of lawmakers.

Last year, they spent a total of $36 million trying to persuade lawmakers, according to reports filed with the Oregon Government Ethics Commission.

But lobbyists say building relationships and providing reliable information is really how to gain traction with lawmakers. Lobbyists say that legislators and staff will turn to them to find out if what they are proposing in legislation can actually be implemented.

“It’s people and information,” said Tom Holt, who mostly represents health care companies, as well as the Oregon Society of Professional Journalists. “Ninety-five percent of what we do is on issues that will never make the news.”

He said much of that work concerns technical issues in broader bills. For instance, he pointed to a bill from a previous session that would change the limits on refills for eye drops to treat glaucoma. Holt said the insurance company he was representing didn’t oppose the goal of the legislation but was concerned the way the bill was worded would make it hard to implement.  

“A lot of people see lobbyists on TV, and they think lobbying is giving checks or arguing loudly,” said Mike Selvaggio, who represents United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555 and the Oregon Coalition of Police and Sheriffs.

But he said lobbying is about relationships and communication, including with legislators and other lobbyists who may not be natural allies and providing trustworthy information on behalf of clients. Lobbyists also regularly talk to each other to spot areas of disagreement on bills to work around them.

“People like to jokingly say, ‘lobbyists and politicians, you can’t trust them,’” he said. “But in Salem, (trust) is your bread and butter.”

Jared Mason-Gere, a lobbyist for the Oregon Education Association, said if a lobbyist is effective, lawmakers will seek them out to get answers to questions on complex issues, like school testing or the state employee retirement system. He said he also carries the stories of educators and students to legislators to show how legislation affects them.

“Information is the currency of the realm in the Capitol,” said Arthur Towers, political director for the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association.

‘Zoom is not the best platform for that’

Currently, only staff and legislators are allowed in the Capitol building. Lawmakers still do much of their work remotely. Marion County is in the state’s “high risk” category. Once it enters the “moderate risk” category, legislative leaders plan to develop a framework to allow greater access to the Capitol.

Lobbyists interviewed by Salem Reporter say information travels faster and more freely when the Capitol is open. They say that short interactions between themselves and lawmakers or their staff are an overlooked part of the legislative process.

These conversations usually aren’t on anyone’s calendar. They happen over coffee in the Capitol cafeteria, in legislators’ offices and in the hallways outside of committee hearings and floor sessions. Lobbyists use these conversations to check in on bills, point out problematic language, swap information and keep their priorities in front of lawmakers.

Lobbyists say these small conversations smooth out disagreements and build consensus among legislators and other lobbyists, allowing legislation to move ahead.

Towers said in normal times he could shuttle information from office to office. If he had 50 people to talk to, he could find them and speak to them in person in the Capitol.

“But 50 different texts to 50 different people seems harder,” he said.

Holt said when he can’t get on a legislator’s calendar, he’ll drop by their office for five minutes to talk to staff, raising concerns about an amendment or section of a bill. Doing so can significantly slow down or speed up legislation, he said.

Justin Martin, who represents the city of Salem and the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, said he would normally be camped out in the Capitol all day and sometimes all it takes is 30 seconds with a legislator or staffer to answer a question. But now he has to schedule a 10- or 15-minute video call.

“It’s just frustrating,” he said. “There is no way around it.”

Sparks said she often discusses very technical aspects of employment law and its effects on businesses and workers. 

“Zoom is not the best platform for that,” she said. “I don’t know how legislators are absorbing the information they’re getting.”

‘Mistakes will get through’

With the ease of communication now gone, some lobbyists say errors and other problems with legislation that would have been fixed in normal times will now make it into law.

Towers likened these short in-person interactions in the Capitol to oil in a car. Without them, the legislative gears will grind, he said.

One lobbyist, speaking on background, said there were already signs of it during a special session in December. One of the priority bills of the session was to allow restaurants and bars to sell drinks to-go. But the bill’s language left out wine and an amendment had to be introduced during the one-day session to fix that. Such a mistake wouldn’t happen in normal sessions, the lobbyist said.

Another lobbyist, speaking on background, said they were blindsided this session when a state agency proposed a problematic bill with an unclear intent. When the bill was scheduled for a hearing, the lobbyist responded with alarm and quickly fired off emails to legislators on the committee.

“I could have swung by the chair’s office or had several small conversations instead of sitting in my office at 2 a.m.,” the lobbyist said.

Lobbyists said that their brief contacts with legislators become even more important as the session approaches deadlines for bills to be voted out of committee or the House or Senate.

Jess Giannettino Villatoro, political director for the Oregon AFL-CIO, said she’s worried that as committee deadlines approach, amendments that may have unintended consequences will unexpectedly post to the Legislature’s website. That could cause her to publicly oppose the amendment, creating a more public and adversarial relationship with legislators or others when the issue could have been resolved with a conversation.

That also would mean she has to reach out later to legislators to smooth relationships – taking up more time.

Some lobbyists say they expect that more bills will be passed this session that will have problems that need to be fixed in future sessions.

“If the legislature doesn’t narrow its focus, we’re going to spend a lot of time having to clean up what happens this session,” said Sparks.

Other lobbyists say that bills are likely to be dropped because there isn’t enough time in the new environment to resolve issues or get to unanswered questions.

“Mistakes will get through,” said Holt. “I have no doubt about that. But on the other hand, that’s why the process has been slowed down to minimize those.”

‘Accessible to the public like never before’

Legislative leaders have said that although the Capitol is closed, doing much of its work remotely has allowed for greater citizen participation. More Oregonians are testifying before committees because they can appear remotely instead of driving, in some cases hundreds of miles, to testify in person.

Lobbyists interviewed for this story say it’s positive that citizens can testify remotely. Mason-Gere, of the Oregon Education Association, pointed to a recent hearing where teachers from the coast and central Oregon weighed in remotely.

“The process is accessible to the public like never before, and I think it’s a huge improvement,” said House Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland, in an emailed statement. She added, “It’s a little less convenient for contract lobbyists, and a lot more accessible for the general public. If lobbyists have specific suggestions for improvements to the process, they should let us know.”

 Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.

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