Package of Bills Would Support Public Integrity Commission

DOVER – The independent state agency responsible for regulating lobbyists and administering financial disclosure rules for state officials would receive additional funding, realize new efficiencies and gain additional enforcement authority under a series of bills filed today by House Democrats.

The five-bill package is designed to strengthen Delaware’s Public Integrity Commission (PIC) by giving it the ability to move more of its required documentation online, and hold the people it regulates more accountable when rules and procedures aren’t followed. The legislation also creates new streams of funding for the PIC, which has taken on greater responsibilities in recent years without adding staff or increasing its budget.

This package builds on lobbying reforms begun by the House Majority Caucus in 2012 and is a continuation of efforts to increase transparency and broaden public access when it comes to lobbying activity and the financial interests of public officers. It also addresses a key recommendation to strengthen the PIC outlined in the recent report from retired Chief Justice Norman Veasey.

House Bill 305, sponsored by Rep. Darryl M. Scott, would establish an annual registration fee for lobbyists, which would be used to fund the investigatory functions of the PIC. Delaware is one of only nine states that do not require lobbyists to pay annual fees. According to the bill, the fee would be set annually by the commission at an amount sufficient to cover the costs of regulating registered lobbyists. Unpaid, volunteer lobbyists would not be required to pay the fee.

Rep. Scott said the PIC deserves a dedicated stream of revenue to support its operations.

“The PIC devotes about a third of its time to the regulation and oversight of lobbying in our state. Operating on a shoestring budget, its two employees handle some 300 registered lobbyists and the more than 4,200 reports they generate each year,” said Rep. Scott, D-Dover. “If we want this agency to be responsive to the public while aggressively pursuing issues and complaints, then I think it’s only fair that those who create this workload help offset the costs.”

Another bill, House Bill 306, would charge lobbyists a late fee of $25 when their quarterly expense reports aren’t filed on time with the PIC, plus $10 a day for each day the report remains late up to a maximum of $100. Current law establishes due dates for these reports, but includes no penalty to encourage compliance. Registered lobbyists are required to document expenditures directly provided to elected officials and public employees for items such as food, entertainment, gifts and contributions. They also must name any recipients of daily expenditures worth more than $50.

“The state charges late fees for tax bills, car registration renewals, all kinds of licenses and other paperwork. It’s a common practice, and it’s a sum of money that reminds you to take care of your obligations in a timely fashion,” said bill sponsor Rep. Ed Osienski, D-Newark. “This is about making sure the public has access to the latest information about lobbying activity in their government.”

A third bill, House Bill 307, would give more teeth to an existing rule requiring candidates for state elected office to submit financial disclosure forms to the PIC within 14 days of being added to a ballot. Currently, there is no way to deal with candidates who fail to provide this information.

HB 307, sponsored by Rep. Paul Baumbach, would require the PIC to inform the Commissioner of Elections when a candidate is delinquent in submitting his or her financial disclosure. Though failure to file this report does not disqualify a candidate from running, the Commissioner of Elections would be able to publicly post a listing of any candidates who have not filed a financial disclosure report.

“There have been cases in the past when candidates for office failed to file disclosure forms on time or simply ignored the requirement altogether, and the public has no easy way to find out who,” said Rep. Baumbach, D-Newark. “This is exactly the kind of documentation voters need to make the most informed choices about the people they want to represent them.”

The final two bills in the package would mandate online filing of required commission documents for lobbyists and public officials. House Bill 303, sponsored by Rep. Stephanie T. Bolden, covers a PIC authorization document that employers of lobbyists must sign when they hire them.

“This bill eliminates paperwork that can be inconvenient for the person filing it and the commission, and any time we can use technology to make things more efficient, we should,” said Rep. Bolden, D-Wilmington.

The last measure, House Bill 304 from Rep. Charles Potter Jr., would require that financial disclosure reports from public officials be filed electronically. All elected officials and senior state appointees, such as cabinet officers, must file these reports periodically. Currently, the vast majority of filers submit their reports to the PIC electronically, but it is not required. Reports submitted in hard copy have to be entered manually into a database, which is a time-consuming task for the commission staff.

“Last year the PIC received 322 financial disclosure reports, and 309 of them were submitted online,” said Rep. Potter, D-Wilmington North. “This bill just makes everything uniform and cuts out one more step for the commission’s small staff, leaving them more time to act on complaints and fulfill requests from the public.”