Lobbyists spent $437,500 on meals, drinks and gifts for Oklahoma legislators between January and May, according to an Oklahoma Ethics Commission report.

That's a 34 percent increase over last year, as Oklahoma Watch's Trevor Brown points out in his June 17 article "Lobbyist Spending Nears Record Level," and the second most ever reported following the $480,000 spent in 2017.

The increase came a few months after Gov. Kevin Stitt signed an executive order prohibiting state agencies from signing new contracts with third-party lobbying firms, although the order doesn't impact non-government organizations and associations, and agencies can still hire their own internal lobbyists, or "legislative liaisons." The order was designed to increase transparency and cooperation at the Capitol, Stitt said when he signed the order in January.

Pat Hall, a Norman resident, has been working at the Capitol for almost 40 years, and for the past 19 as a lobbyist. He disagreed with Stitt's assertion, noting that the decision may cost the state more money.

"Gov. Stitt unfortunately did not have a conversation with lobbyists," Hall said. "It may be positive to the public because they're not going to be entertaining legislators, but they're advocating a government position as a full-time job. Are they lobbying for more appropriations for the agency or on policy?"

He said while the general public may consider lobbying a corrupt practice, it's a necessary part of government.

"I get the public's perception; why do these people even spend a dollar buying a cup of coffee for an elected official?" he said. "It's about access, having conversations longer than 30 seconds in a hallway."

Hall pointed out that one of the organizations he represents is the state medical association, and that doctors and pediatricians don't have time to sit down with lawmakers and discuss legislation that impacts their profession.

"My job is to introduce the medical doctors' ideas, objectives and goals to legislators," he said. "We do entertain… What do I get in return for sponsoring lunch with, for instance, the legislative black caucus? Quality time in front of members of that caucus to discuss medical issues: Medicaid expansion, vaccinations, opioid reform, all these issues that are important to medical association and the caucus."

Oklahoma Watch published a database of legislators and the amount of money lobbyists spent on them, with the average lawmaker receiving $1,200. Norman legislators received the following: Rep. Emily Virgin -- $1,710; Rep. Merleyn Bell -- $1,358; Sen. Mary Boren -- $791; Rep. Jacob Rosecrants -- $537; and Sen. Rob Standridge -- $407.

The largest spenders, according to an Oklahoma Watch database, included the Professional Firefighters of Oklahoma, AFL-CIO, IAFF ($25,127); Cox Communications ($23,410); Public Service Company of Oklahoma ($22,558); Oklahoma Association of Electric Cooperatives ($21,284); and the Oklahoma Cable and Telecommunication Association ($21,162).

As Brown writes, however, the Oklahoma Ethics Commission doesn't require lobbyists to identify which lawmakers attend events where all legislators or specific committees or caucuses are invited. Those events made up more than half of lobbyist spending, or $226,260.

Hall said at least one of the reasons lobbyist spending increased this session was because the state had a budget surplus.

"Oklahoma looked friendlier for business due to the increase in the general revenue fund," he said. "The past few years, business kind of stayed away, with the economic downturn and tension at the Capitol. We were having huge fights, wind versus oil and gas. It just wasn't a good environment. This year, the economy was better, businesses and organizations had more to spend."

Hall did say the session went by quickly, and some organizations he represented weren't able to hold annual events, but there were more breakfast meetings.

"The public isn't alarmed with bacon and eggs," he said.

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