I’ve been thinking about a protest sign I saw years ago.
A middle-aged gentleman held the sign in Anchorage’s town square. He wore an accompanying expression that came across more like a defeated sigh. Tired eyes, a graying beard, and a beaten up corduroy jacket amplified the message he had written on a piece of cardboard: “I can’t afford a lobbyist.”
He’s right. Lobbyists are expensive. This year’s state legislative lobbyist directory reads like a brochure for paychecks you dream about. $150k a year for Lobbyist A to make sure ConocoPhillips has a seat at the table in Juneau. $11,600 every month for Lobbyist B from Exxon. $52 per hour for Lobbyist C from Walmart.
Our legislature has 60 elected officials. The 2013 Lobbyist Directory had 61 pages. From private industry to organized labor to religious groups, state government in Alaska is taking notes from the dysfunctional federal model with reckless abandon. Washington D.C., and the capitol’s 535 elected residents, are outflanked by over 10,000 lobbyists who have spent $1.61 billion so far this year.
Political activist and author Lawrence Lessig summarized the transformation from a representative republic to a corrupt special-interest dominated political culture:
[T]he single most salient feature of the government that we have evolved is not that it discriminates in favor of one side and against the other. The single most salient feature is that it discriminates against all sides to favor itself.
A lot of us feel like we’re just another person holding a sign that no one in power cares about; very much on the outside looking in. Our representatives have drawn the blinds.
If you’re one of the 93,000 Alaskans who participate in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), you’re probably feeling particularly pinched by this trend.
Last week, the U.S. Congress passed the Nutrition Reform and Work Opportunity Act, which would cut the federal food assistance program by $40 billion over ten years. This comes atop cuts already scheduled to take effect in November, as economic stimulus funds expire. The state legislature will also have to renew the $3 million in yearly state spending if it wishes to continue our state-run school meals program. There is no guarantee they will do so.
For the economically downtrodden, the elected officials hired to steer the ship seem poised to aim for troubled waters. And it’s hard not to feel like something’s wrong with the compass.
In 2011, SNAP kept 4.7 million Americans out of poverty. Every $1 increase in SNAP benefits generates $1.70 in economic activity, according to data from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. In other words, investing in citizens teetering on the poverty line generates healthy returns – all while fighting child hunger.
SNAP is a good program. Our lawmakers should get that.
The threats to our food assistance programs are growing in frequency, and the economic and social benefits that the program creates are being ignored at the same pace. But a single Alaskan making $18,655 (130% of the poverty level; the maximum eligibility for food assistance) won’t have much luck scoring an affordable lobbyist to argue that point in Juneau.
So, I have a suggestion.
A 2011 news headline from the Anchorage Daily News, describes how lobbying takes shape just outside the doorstep of the capitol building in Juneau:
Lobbyists also wine and dine legislators…. BP lobbyist Paul Quensel and Exxon lobbyist Dan Seckers treated the co-chairs of the Senate Finance Committee, Bert Stedman and Lyman Hoffman, and Hoffman’s wife last year. They also picked up the tab for Wasilla Sen. Charlie Huggins, Anchorage Sen. Lesil McGuire, North Pole Sen. John Coghill, Kenai Sen. Tom Wagoner, as well as Wagoner’s wife….
Seckers reported that he spent just over $900 on food and beverages for legislators, spouses and staff last year. BP’s Quesnel put down expenses of nearly $500.
Alaska passed an ethics law in 2007, carving out an exemption for money lobbyists spend on legislators, so long as it is used to purchase “food and/or beverages for immediate consumption.” The lobbyists have to report any restaurant or bar tabs exceeding $15.
A $15 limit (which isn’t as much a limit as it is a reporting requirement) per meal tallies to a daily total of $45; three and a half times more than the upper range of SNAP recipient benefits.
So, why don’t we limit lobbyist “food and/or beverages” expenditures on legislators to the rate of food assistance benefits? If special interest groups wish to influence our elected officials through a little liquid lubrication or a nice, red-centered, filet mignon, our legislators will have to make sure the 93,000 Alaskans currently receiving SNAP benefits are receiving similar accommodations.
Are you a single lawmaker? Well then, you cap out at about $7.86 per meal. Hopefully you made happy hour.
It’s unfortunate that creating “politician-hunger” – or at least, politician-inconvenience – seems like the needed incentive to draw attention to child hunger, veteran-hunger, elderly-hunger, and poverty-hunger (i.e., constituent-hunger). But if elected officials won’t voluntarily walk in their constituents’ shoes through projects like the Food Stamp Challenge, maybe we should bring the challenge to them. Maybe we’d end up with a little more parity in the system.
Beats hoping they’ll notice the signs.