State Lobbyists Form Association To Promote Advocacy And Awareness

by Scott Carter

A group of Oklahoma lobbyists have created a new organization to promote governmental advocacy as a profession and raise awareness of what lobbyist do, the founder of the organization said recently.

Edmond lobbyist Jim Dunalp is the founder of the new organization, the Oklahoma Society of Professional Advocates. The group is about two weeks old and actively seeking members.

“Our mission is simple,” Dunlap wrote in an email to prospective members, “to promote government affairs advocacy as a profession, support open, transparent practices at the capitol while working with the Ethics Commission and the Oklahoma Legislature to improve understanding and compliance with the laws governing lobbying in Oklahoma while raising the public perception of our industry while also providing an administrative support system for our network of businesses.”

The new organization comes at the same time Republican Governor Kevin Stitt issued his second executive order tightening restrictions on the use of lobbyist by state agencies. Stitt’s most recent order prohibits state agencies from entering into any new contract or renewing an existing contract a lobbyist.

Dunalp said the goal of the group was to raise awareness of what lobbyist do and the services they provide. He said he had concerns about the governor’s executive order but respected the process. “The governor was elected by the people of Oklahoma and he can make decisions as he sees fit,” Dunlap said. “We understand that.”

The organizational effort comes as Stitt has issued a flurry of executive orders that clamp down on lobbyist with state contracts and restrict travel and membership in professional organizations.

Since January, Stitt has issued three executive orders tightening restrictions on lobbyists and memberships in professional organizations. Many state agencies and agency officials hold memberships in professional organizations that use lobbyists at the state Capitol. Stitt’s April order could limit agency participation in such organizations, further limiting lobbyists access to agency officials.

Dunlap said the new organization would provide better infrastructure and scheduling for lobbyists but would not hire its own lobbyist. A one-page fact sheet being sent to prospective members said membership in the organization is open to registered lobbyists and other government relations professionals residing in Oklahoma. The membership fee is $1000. Out of state are eligible to join for $500 annually.

Dunlap said the organization would serve as a one-stop spot for ethics commission issues, track legislation of interest to the lobby and governmental affairs communities, work to find health insurance and group discounts for lobbyists, send out reminders of ethics commission reporting requirements, maintain a master calendar of events scheduled during the legislative session and provide training and educational opportunities for members.

Dunlap said plans for the group have been under development for more than a year. Still, Stitt’s executive orders and the creation of the lobbyist’s association come during a time that governmental affairs representatives are under heightened scrutiny.

The governor’s executive order has also sparked pushback from several lobbyists.

“It’s probably good politics but it’s bad policy,” said Oklahoma City lobbyist Jimmy Durant. “The governor made campaign promises, something he said he would do, so he’s sticking to it.”

But that promise, Durant said, could prove more costly than the governor thinks. He said agencies such as the Department of Human Services, Corrections, Mental Health and others will now hire legislative liaisons – highly paid state employees who also get state benefits but who effectively function as lobbyist for their agency.

“Those employees are going to cost the state more than a lobbying contract,” he said. Durant, who represents several health care organizations, said Stitt’s executive order will cost him thousands of dollars in contracts.

He said the governor could also face some legal issues under a 1995 attorney general’s opinion. That opinion, written by then-Attorney General Drew Edmondson, could be interpreted in a way would prevent the governor from making changes to state agencies that were created by the Oklahoma Constitution.

“There is a belief that agencies such as the Board of Pharmacy and the Dental Board – both of which established by the constitution – would not be effected by the governor’s executive order,” he said.

In his executive order, Stitt said the use of agency-hired lobbyist costs the state more than $1.4 million each year. Documents from the Oklahoma Ethics Commission show that lobbyist spent about $473,000 on meals, drinks and gifts for state lawmakers during 2019 legislative session.

Both Durant and Dunlap said lobbyists play an important role in the legislative process. Many lobbyists, they said, are often called on to answer questions about policy and previous issues that affect state government.

“They are, often, go-to people,” Dunlap said. “A seasoned lobbyist is part of the process; they help get information and answers.”

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