OKLAHOMA CITY — Casey Murdock admits that he was lobbyists’ prime target during his first year at the state Capitol.
After discovering conversations were happening outside the halls of the Capitol, the then-state representative said he went to every possible lobbyist-sponsored dinner he could in an effort to be the most informed legislator.
“I always used them as information, because I can’t be expected to know A to Z on what we have to vote on,” he said
In all, lobbyists reported Murdock, R-Felt, accepted more than $3,400 in meals and gifts in 2015, according to state Ethics Commission filings.
Lobbyists are individuals typically paid to help influence decision-making at the Capitol. They often seek out the freshmen lawmakers in an effort to build relationships with them, said Murdock. He spent three years in the state House before being elected to the Senate where he currently serves.
“Term limits,” Murdock said. “It’s given lobbyists and agency heads power because legislators here have got 12 years.”
With the largest number of freshmen lawmakers elected to the Legislature since statehood, some say new legislators will have to rely on lobbyists to help teach them the ropes. In all, the House will see 46 new members with a dozen in the Senate.
“When you’re brand new up here, it’s kind of like drinking out of a fire hydrant,” said former state Rep. Josh Cockroft, R-Wanette. “All the information that’s thrown at you.”
When he was elected, one of the first things Cockroft said he did was identify trustworthy lobbyists and form relationships with them. While they may get a bad rap, lobbyists are a huge resource for lawmakers to get a better grasp on issues, he said.
“It’s so vital because you can’t know everything about every subject, every issue that you surround yourself with people that you trust,” he said. “It’s a slow process. It took me a full term really before I could feel like I was starting to get a grasp on everything that was being thrown my way.”
After serving eight years, Cockroft opted not to run again. He’s now eyeing a career as a lobbyist.
Lobbyists, he said, will play an integral role in shaping public policy the next couple of years.
“I wouldn’t say (2019) is the year of the lobbyist,” he said. “I think they’re going to hold a tremendous amount of influence, but at the end of the day, it’s the representative hitting that red or that green button. They’ve got to do their research and making sure they’re well-read on every issue.”
In 2018, Oklahoma’s registered lobbyists reported spending more than $333,000 on gifts and meals, according to required state Ethics Commission filings.
Mike Jackson served 10 years in the state House before becoming a registered lobbyist for the Oklahoma State Chamber. One of 52 freshmen in 2004, Jackson said his legislative class had the second largest number of newly minted lawmakers.
“What was the most important, at least to me, was listening to those who had been there before,” he said.
His organization sponsors a bootcamp for lawmakers in December. The goal is to identify areas where newly elected lawmakers may lack knowledge so that legislators “can hit the ground running.”
“I don’t think it’s the year of the lobbyist at the Capitol,” he said. “Ultimately, the lobbyist has influence through the relationships that they have.”
With 58 new lawmakers, lobbyists are going to have to cultivate new relationships, he said.
Good lobbyists and agency heads will try to educate lawmakers on every aspect of an issue, he said.
“We get a lot of questions even before the Legislature starts to convene because they’re looking for information. They’re looking for trust sources of information,” Jackson said.
But in an effort to ward off potential conflicts of interest, the state’s Ethics Commission recently tried to require former elected officials or agency heads to wait two years to lobby the entities they had previously served, said Ashley Kemp, the agency’s executive director.
The measure was designed to be an extension of a state Constitution concept barring lawmakers from working for a state agency for two years because they set budgets, she said.
“That same concept holds true for legislators or any elected official when becoming a lobbyist if they have played a role in the administration of state funds, if they’ve played a role in regulations,” Kemp said. “They may have come into contact with information that just provides an opportunity to enrich themselves perhaps at the expense of state government.”
Legislators killed the measure last session.
The Ethics Commission plans to try again in February, Kemp said.
“We’re not trying to demean the work that lobbyists do because they really are vital in state government in providing information to lawmakers and agency administrators in how laws apply, what changes in the laws (mean), how they may impact their clients,” she said.
“Of course, they have some kind of influence, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s always negative.”
Murdock, the state lawmaker, said lobbyists will have to work hard next year because there are so many new legislators.
“Hopefully, the new ones won’t get caught up in that scene and will understand that the lobbyist are just for information, and if they use them as for just information sources, then I think we’ll be fine,” he said.
Now that he’s got experience, Murdock said his reliance on lobbyists has diminished.
“I’m just old hat now,” he said. “They’ve got a big freshman class to build those relationships with.”
Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.