Patrick signs bill delaying lobbying reform

Gov. Deval Patrick last week signed a bill postponing lobbying law reforms that were scheduled to take effect this week.  The Legislature earlier had sent Patrick a bill to delay implementation until Jan. 1, 2010.

The slate of reforms was touted over the summer as critical to shedding more light on who’s lobbying on Beacon Hill. Legislative advocates call the law vague and confusing, and welcomed the delay. As lobbying provisions were set to take effect last week, which marked the 90-day waiting period for the new law, lobbyists described uncertainty about its scope.

Rep. Peter Kocot, chairman of the House Ethics Committee, said that delaying the implementation of lobbying statutes would allow Secretary of State William Galvin’s office adequate time to prepare new procedures for registering lobbyists.

“We wanted to make sure that the agencies were capable of complying with this huge amount of new work,” he said. “This just gives everyone a little more time to make sure there aren’t any errors made. Our primary goal is to make sure that this is enforced correctly.”

Kocot said he believed changing the implementation date wouldn’t have “any real impact” because most lobbyists have already registered for the current reporting period and wouldn’t need to file with the Galvin right away. Although new definitions have caused concern about who will be required to register, Kocot said Galvin “has taken all the steps that he needs to make sure he’s moving down the right path.”

Galvin, whose office oversees lobbyist registration, said that he hadn’t sought any changes to the law and had just learned of lawmakers’ effort to revise it, telling the News Service, “If you look at our website, we’ve implemented the law, as far as we’re concerned.”

Galvin offered a similarly optimistic assessment. “We’re ready to go,” he said.

Galvin said it was unclear how many new lobbyists would fall under the law. “It could be ten. It could be hundreds. It’s hard to say.” He acknowledged that not all potential lobbyists scrutinizing their portfolio for registration mandates would find their cases “susceptible to simplicity.”

He said, “If you’re in doubt, we’re advising that the safer course of action is to register.”

But some lobbyists say there is still confusion about who needs to register. Ben Fierro, a lawyer-lobbyist who closely tracked the law passed this summer, said a general sense of uncertainty remains over the broadened definition of lobbying and the narrowing of exemptions for “incidental lobbying.”

He said the delay would be welcomed by organizations with volunteers concerned about compliance with the law if they participate in legislative activities as members of trade associations, professional societies, and unions.

The law also features a mandatory training course for newly registered lobbyists and Galvin’s office also “seemed not to have the course available,” Fierro said.

Judy Meredith, a longtime human services lobbyist, called the potential delay in the implementation date of the lobbying laws “good news.”

“The secretary of state has done a good job of updating his website so people can register to lobby. There are still a lot of ambiguities in the way the law was written that’s confusing,” she said. “I believe that they need more time, the secretary of state, to do more thorough ... frequently asked questions. He has very limited regulatory authority under this bill. It’s not like he can answer all the ambiguities by regulation.”

Meredith added, “I am encouraging human service and housing people to register, register, register.”