Advocates decry new lobbyist law

This year’s massive overhaul of the laws governing how lobbyists operate in Massachusetts was intended to enhance oversight in the legislative system, but community advocates disagree on the effectiveness and intentions of the new rules and the burdens that come with greater government transparency.

At the center of one debate is the provision in the new law, set to go into effect October 1, that redefines and greatly broadens what the state considers lobbying activities. The provision considers any work or speechmaking taking up more than 25 hours in a six-month period to be lobbying, and requires that those participating in the activity must register with the state as a lobbyist.

The issue has hit home for Dorchester’s Bill Walczak, who says that the new rules may prevent him from taking part in community discussions beyond the scope of his job as CEO of the Codman Square Health Center. Since he is associated with organizations that deal with issues beyond health care, Walczak said, any speech or work advocating for causes outside his job could force him into the category the state considers lobbying.

“It’s not transparency,” says Walczak, “it’s a regulatory burden against free speech.”

Advocates of the new law say that limiting speech was never an intention of the reform.

“The law never requires a volunteer to register,” only those who are paid to advocate for certain interests, said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, a non-profit organization dedicated to open government. Under the old law, individuals were considered lobbyists only if they advocated for issues in the Legislature for 50 hours or more, according to Wilmot. The new law also broadens the language that defines the act of lobbying, allowing for a greater variety of activities to be considered such.

“If you’re advocating for a cause in the Legislature and you’re doing it as part of your job ... you should register if you’re doing it for any more than a very, very small amount of time,” said Wilmot. “I think that concept is something a lot of nonprofits don’t agree with.”

The law “makes a lot of demands for people to be very clear about what they’re lobbying for. But it only applies to people who are getting paid to lobby,” said Judith Meredith, executive director of the Public Policy institute. “What’s wrong with getting registered as a lobbyist?” said Meredith. “You have to fill out reports, you have to pay something, but this is important stuff.”

Walczak is adamant that his situation is an unintended result of the legislation, and has no plans to register as a lobbyist come October 1.

“I think it would infringe on my rights as a Dorchester resident to speak on matters of importance to the Dorcester community. I will not be registering as a lobbyist at the end of September no matter what happens.”

“The legislation was very far reaching and very complex,” said Northampton state representative Peter Kocot, the co-chair of the committee that worked on the reform bill. “From the time that it’s passed to the time that is implemented, folks react to [the new law.]”

Kocot said that the office of Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin is looking into how best to interpret the new rules. The law “is not flawed,” said Kocot, who insists that the new regulations are not “capturing the wrong universe” of individuals.

One point that regulators and advocates on both sides agree on is that the date the new definitions become effective should be delayed from October 1 to the beginning of next year. Kocot said he is strongly considering recommending pushing back the date, a position both Walczak and Wilmot support.

By pushing back the implementation, Walzcak said, maybe officials can find a way to prevent community activists from being forced to register.