Tuesday, October 26, 2021
Oct. 26, 2021

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With 1 in 5 lobbyists coming from state service, Washington lawmakers hear bill to restrict revolving door

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As they consider creating a waiting period for high-ranking public servants who want to become lobbyists, Washington lawmakers get to watch Olympia’s revolving door spin right before their eyes.

Even as a handful of lawmakers re-upped their longshot bid this month to create a one-year “cooling-off” period, the latest revolving-door example emerged from Gov. Jay Inslee’s office.

Charles Knutson, a senior policy adviser for the governor on economic development, innovation and global affairs, left that position on Dec. 22, according to a spokesperson for Inslee’s office.

By Jan. 6, Knutson, a longtime Inslee staffer, had registered as a lobbyist with Amazon, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission (PDC).

In Olympia, Knutson’s two-week journey from government staffer to private policy work is far from unusual. Officials often move from state positions to lobbying in weeks or months — sometimes within days.

Unlike at least 33 other states and the federal government, Washington requires no waiting period for any former elected official or government worker to become a lobbyist.

Nearly 1 in 5 of the state’s approximately 800 registered lobbyists worked previously in elected office or state government, according to an analysis last year of state records by The Seattle Times and Northwest News Network.

That analysis revealed about 60 lobbyists who came from high-ranking jobs. Some are former state legislators or attorneys at the Legislature. Others include former chiefs of staff and senior policy advisers of governors, as well as Cabinet secretaries and deputy directors at state agencies.

Good-government advocates say the “revolving door” dynamic creates the potential for powerful interests to influence public officials who could then be in line to secure work outside of government.

After that, those former public servants can use their extensive knowledge and contacts as lobbyists to potentially wield outsized influence on legislation and policy.

Even if none of that actually happens, the public is left with the perception that it might be taking place.

But bills at the Legislature to create a cooling-off period have stalled for years, despite no formal opposition.

The dynamic is not lost on Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, who has for years sponsored cooling-off proposals. On Wednesday, he testified in a public hearing on his latest version, Senate Bill 5170.

“If you thought that fighting climate change and surviving a global pandemic was challenging, I would respectfully encourage you to try to pass this bill,” Carlyle told lawmakers on the Senate Committee on State Government & Elections. “It’s a heck of a lot harder than tackling those particular challenges.”

In an email, Inslee spokesperson Tara Lee wrote that Knutson came to the governor’s office in 2013 from the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce.

So, “It is not surprising that he would go work for a major corporation as part of the next phase of his career,” wrote Lee.

“Having Charles in this role does not provide Amazon with any additional (or any less) access to the governor’s office than they had before,” added Lee. “As a major employer in our state, we’ve had a good working relationship with Amazon for years.”

Knutson in an email referred questions to Amazon.

In a statement, a company spokesperson said that, “Our public policy team is focused on community partnerships and engagement in addition to advocating on issues that are important to policymakers, our employees and our customers, and we employ experienced professionals to help with these efforts.”

Carlyle’s bill would prohibit certain state officials from practicing or getting paid to lobby until one year after they leave their public position, according to a legislative analysis.

Those subject to that prohibition include state lawmakers and statewide elected officials; heads of Cabinet agencies and top administrators who report to them or to statewide elected officials; top officials in the Legislature; and senior executive staff overseen by the heads of executive Cabinet agencies, of legislative agencies, and of agencies overseen by statewide elected officials.

The bill makes some exceptions to that ban, such as for individuals lobbying in public-sector positions, and would allow lobbyists to seek a waiver from the one-year ban for certain circumstances.

This year, Carlyle’s bill has five Democratic co-sponsors, though previous versions in the House and Senate have had Republican support as well.

The legislation has long been requested by Attorney General Bob Ferguson. Though he didn’t request the legislation this year, a representative for the office testified Wednesday on behalf of Ferguson’s office in “strong support.”

“We have an obligation to all Washingtonians to foster, protect and enhance principles of ethical government,” said Robert Colton, of the Attorney General’s Office.

Colton cited the “public outcry” in 2019 after a state lawmaker stepped down abruptly to swiftly take a corporate lobbying job.

That lawmaker was Democratic Sen. Guy Palumbo of Maltby — who resigned to take a position with Amazon.

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