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People and organizations that wanted to influence the 2019 Montana Legislature spent at least $6.5 million on those efforts during and after the session, according Montana Public Radio.

MTPR reporter Corin Cates-Carney worked many hours during and after the legislative session to calculate spending on food, beverages and entertainment for legislators and salaries for lobbyists. Most of the lobbyists represented Montana businesses or organizations, according reports on the commissioner of political practices website, but out-of-state businesses and interest groups also spent tens of thousands of dollars trying to influence lawmakers. 

Cates-Carney and Montana Public Radio deserve credit for bringing this public information to light. The web headline "Montana lobbyist spending reports now harder to access" conveys the fact that the story wasn't easy to report. There's not a searchable electronic data base for all lobbying reports, such as state law requires for candidate and campaign spending. The MTPR journalist persevered in opening hundreds of files, one at a time, transcribing information of scanned paper reports and analyzing it on an Excel spreadsheet.

Not many Montanans have the time or patience to undertake such a laborious process to learn how much money was spent to influence lawmakers. The process of getting public information must be simple and quick. Otherwise, it is an obstacle to public access.

In years past, the Commissioner of Political Practices staff has input the paper lobbyist reports. But this year Commissioner Jeff Mangan decided that spending days inputting paper reports wasn't the best use of staff time in an office with only seven employees, including Mangan.

The solution is to require all lobbying reports to be filed electronically. 

According to state law, anyone who paid another person $2,600 or more for lobbying in the 2019 Legislature was required to report that expenditure to the Commissioner of Political Practices Office. Reports are required monthly during the session and an after-session report is required if money is paid to lobbyists after adjournment.

Montana law says lobbying reports "shall be a public record and open to the inspection of any individual upon demand at any time during the regular business hours of the office of the commissioner." That's a long-outdated guarantee of access in a state where legislative proceedings are live streamed and bills are updated continuously on the state website. The lobbying reports should be easily searchable.

Montana has some of the strongest, most transparent campaign finance disclosure laws in the nation. But disclosure was a hard sell to legislators who would be subject to that transparency law. Changes in lobbying disclosure requirements can be expected to generate push back from folks who are especially savvy about how to pass and kill bills. Successfully reforming — strengthening and simplifying — lobbying laws will require broad bipartisan support. It will also be necessary to get input from Montana lobbyists.

On Monday, Mangan told The Gazette that inputting paper lobbying reports had turned the office's three compliance officers into data entry clerks who spent days keying in paper reports. His policy since taking office is that paper reports are immediately scanned and posted online, but no staff time is devoted to inputting contents of reports that could have been filed electronically.

When the commissioner speaks to the Interim State Administration and Veterans Affairs Committee Thursday, he plans to ask legislators to take a look at requiring electronic filing of all lobbying reports. Candidates and campaign committees already are required to file reports electronically. State law allows lobbyists to choose to file electronically or on paper. People who are spending at least $2,600 to influence a legislative session, should be filing electronic reports for the public.

Meanwhile, Montanans who want to know more about who spent how much lobbying on which bills in the 2019 session may read Cates-Carney's report online at mtpr.org or visit the Commissioner of Political Practices website at politcalpractices.mt.gov.

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