Lobbyists increased gift-giving to lawmakers for the third straight year as legislators this past session grappled with measures seeking to eliminate or reduce corporate tax credits, require a prescription for cold and allergy medicines containing pseudoephedrine and stating that life begins at conception.
The increase in meals and gifts, such as pins, candy and tickets to Oklahoma City Thunder games, is up slightly compared with last year when lobbyists courted 30 freshman state representatives and senators, records filed with the state Ethics Commission show.
One of the most powerful legislators, however, ranked as having received the least amount of meals and gifts from lobbyists during the first six months of this year.
House Speaker Kris Steele, R-Shawnee, received $83 worth of things of value from lobbyists — $33 in meals and $50 worth of chocolate from the Chickasaw Nation, which the tribe offers to all lawmakers.
In contrast, lobbyists reported spending $1,377 in meals and gifts — the most of any lawmaker this year — on Senate President Pro Tem Brian Bingman, R-Sapulpa, who returns to the post next year, and $1,229 on House Speaker Designate T.W. Shannon, R-Lawton, the fourth-highest amount spent on lawmakers.
“The natural progression is to focus on the new leadership,” Steele said.
Steele, who could not seek re-election because of 12-year legislative term limits, said he has weaned himself from lobbyists during his legislative tenure. Lobbyists also may not have focused on him as much because this year's session was his last, said Steele, whose term expires shortly after the Nov. 6 general elections.
Records show Steele accepted $1,153 worth of meals and gifts from lobbyists in 2007, but the amount has decreased since then. Last year he received $411 worth of meals and gifts.
Steele, a Methodist minister, said he depended on lobbyists when he first arrived in the Legislature because they had more knowledge about certain issues, but he gradually cut back, especially on the number of meetings over meals with them.
“Lobbyists are just fine and they serve an important role in their proper place,” Steele said. “But my focus and my attention are to work with members and constituents. To the best of my ability as Speaker of the House, I tried to show that through my actions as well. ... I really tried to work with the body and empower our legislators to make their own decisions based on all of the information that is available.”
“I would rather meet and talk to somebody in my office than go and spend a whole evening of three or four hours at a dinner,” he said.
“When it comes to relationships and their level of involvement with lobbyists and how many gifts or how many meals or financial contributions a member would want to accept from a lobbyist, I ultimately think that that's an individual decision,” he said. “That's something that each lawmaker has to decide for him- or herself.
“The tendency seems to be lobbyists in particular are clamoring to get to know the newer members and obviously a way to do that is going to dinner or different events such as that,” Steele said. “It's a natural tendency for newer members before they even realize how much money is being spent to engage in some of those activities.”
Lobbyists during the first six months of last year spent 28 percent of the $60,585 spent on meals and gifts on new lawmakers. Lobbyists this year spent $61,642 on meals and gifts for legislators from Jan 1. through June 30, an increase of 1.7 percent over last year, reports filed with the Ethics Commission show.