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Local editorial

We think they doth protest too much

If it's not about the money, then let's impose limits on lobbyists' largesse

What's got some Oregon legislators so ready for battle over new limits on lobbying activity? It's not about the money lobbyists bring to the table, they say: no, no, no, no, no.

That amounted, by the way, to &

36;21.4 million in 2003.

You might ask what that kind of money buys, if not influence with legislators. You might worry about what Portland Rep. Jeff Merkley criticized as a cozy relationship between Oregon's 90 legislators and the 650 lobbyists who work Salem. You might register alarm at the legislative practice of pre-session fund-raising events between legislators and lobbyists. This year, legislators collected &

36;250,000 in four nights.

Merkley is the latest in a string of lawmakers in recent years to speak honestly about what lobbying means to the Oregon Legislature.

No one is advocating it stop altogether. Lobbyists have a legitimate role in politics, including arguing the points of view of the groups they represent.

When the Legislature talks about smoking in bars, as it has this month, it makes sense for the state's restaurant association to weigh in. When it talks about eliminating funding for mental health programs, agency employees are bound to have information the session needs to hear.

— But there's a difference between providing information or arguments and simply trading money for support. Oregon's loose ethics laws make the careless approach too easy.

The assembly has frowned, for example, on legislators accepting contributions during the session but endorses the financial free-for-all in the days immediately leading up to it. If lobbyists think it's in their interest to kiss and make up with a few extra bucks, as one former legislator said, no wonder.

Merkley is targeting several areas. He wants to make laws on gifts more specific. He wants more complete disclosure of lobbyist spending. He wants to bar legislators from taking lobbyist money to pay for family vacations, and he wants to require that legislators take a break between serving in the Legislature and becoming a lobbyist.

None of his proposals would hurt lobbyists' ability to do their jobs. None would hurt legislators' access to information. They would only tighten control on the money.

So it's revealing ' considering how little difference the money makes to them ' to watch some legislators' reactions to the ideas.

It's almost as though money is a big deal after all.