Legislators (and lobbyists) convene in Seattle

OLYMPIA — It's what one local lobbyist calls a "schmoozapalooza."

More than 1,300 state legislators — and likely twice that many lobbyists — gather in Seattle this week for the National Conference of State Legislatures' annual convention.

While the six-day agenda is crammed with weighty policy discussions, there will be plenty of opportunities for lawmakers and lobbyists to mingle.

Taxpayers from the various states are covering the travel, hotel and conference expenses for most of their legislators. But big businesses and other special interests are picking up the tab — totaling more than $1.3million — for all of the social events, including a Mariners game and a fully catered "Washington Extravaganza" at Seattle Center.

Boeing, Microsoft, the Gates Foundation and the state Wine Commission pitched in $100,000 apiece.

The meeting gets under way today at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center. Seattle last hosted the event in 1985.

This year's convention slogan — "Strong States Strong Nation" — may be a bit of a euphemism for what will likely be a common refrain this week: Get the federal government off our backs.

Legislators will use the convention — and all of the media attention it draws — as an opportunity to vent about how the federal government is exerting too much control over states.

William Pound, executive director of the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), said lawmakers will talk a lot about problems they are finding with the federal No Child Left Behind Act and a new homeland-security law requiring states to adopt more-stringent rules for granting a driver's license.

He said many state officials also are concerned about a bill pending in Congress that would dictate what sort of laws states could pass to combat methamphetamine abuse.

"Congress and the federal government have a tendency to pre-empt and mandate," Pound said. "It's happening in such a wide variety of areas."

An NCSL task force is expected to release its recommendations for overhauling Medicaid, a joint state-federal health-insurance program that covers 50 million mostly low-income people nationwide. States want more flexibility in finding ways to control the program's ever-soaring costs.

The agenda includes panel discussions on many of the issues of the day in American politics: "The Promises and Pitfalls of Gaming," "Beyond the Schiavo Case: Revisiting End-of-Life Issues," and "Obesity: An American Epidemic."

Some sessions will likely be of particular interest to local lawmakers, such as the matter-of-factly titled "Solving Traffic Congestion" or a session dubbed "Every Vote Counts," largely a rehash of Washington's 2004 governor's election.

And there'll be plenty of advice on how to be a better politician at seminars such as "Mastering the Media" and "The Art of Public Debate."

Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates is scheduled to address the convention Wednesday.

U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who narrowly lost last year's presidential election, is scheduled to speak Friday at a luncheon sponsored by the national Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee.

While the convention is billed as "the forum for America's ideas," it is also a convenient opportunity for businesses and interest groups to push their views and their wares.

Much of that will take place in the 41,000-square-foot exhibit hall, where nearly 300 government vendors, labor groups, corporations and other interest groups will make their pitches and hand out logo-emblazoned gifts and doodads.

Of the 6,045 people who had signed up by last week, only about a third are legislators and legislative staff members. The rest are largely lobbyists or people representing businesses, labor unions and other interest groups.

The heavy lobbyist presence will be nothing new for most legislators.

Last year, lobbyists outnumbered state legislators 5-to-1 nationally and spent nearly $1billion pushing their causes in state capitols, according to a report released last week by the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group.

Washington state ranked sixth overall, with nearly $35 million worth of lobbying. That works out to nearly $240,000 per legislator.

Texas is sending the largest contingent of legislators to this week's convention, with 109 registered as of last week.

Washington will likely have the second-biggest group, with about 80 of the state's 147 lawmakers expected to attend. More than 70 legislative staff members from Olympia also signed up.

Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown of Spokane, who plans to spend most of the week in Seattle, said she has picked up a lot of helpful ideas at past conventions.

"It's not really a venue for lobbyists moving an agenda," said Brown, a Democrat. "It's really designed for legislators to share information with each other."

But Rep. Hans Dunshee, D-Snohomish, said he has never attended an NCSL convention and is skipping this year's. He said whenever his colleagues return from such events, it's usually the socializing and sightseeing they seem to remember most.

"Not many people come back and talk about the breakout session on tax policy," Dunshee said. "It's just a big schmooze. Why would I want to go chatter with some legislator from Arkansas?"

To help cover the convention's entertainment costs, the Legislature two years ago approved an exemption in the state ethics law allowing lawmakers to solicit unlimited contributions from businesses and special interests. Normally, lawmakers can't accept gifts of more than $50.

But with the exemption in hand, a panel mostly composed of current and former Washington state lawmakers raised more than $1.3 million in cash and goods that will go toward pampering the thousands of politicians and staff members attending the event.

For example:

• $80,000 was spent on gifts that will be handed out to attendees, including rolling coolers filled with items such as little bags of Starbucks coffee.

• $142,000 will go to an event tomorrow evening where thousands of convention participants will dine at Qwest Field. Then they'll walk across the street and get complimentary tickets to see the Mariners versus Kansas City Royals baseball game. They should be in a good mood, given the $12,000 in wine that will be provided.

• $402,800 is going toward Thursday's "Washington Extravaganza" at Seattle Center. Convention goers can wander at will through the Pacific Science Center, the Experience Music Project and the Space Needle. Music, street performers and food, wine and beverages will be spread throughout the area.

Seattle Times reporter Andrew Garber contributed to this story. Ralph Thomas: 360-943-9882 or rthomas@seattletimes.com

"Strong States

Strong Nation"

National Conference of State Legislatures convention

The six-day event opens today at Washington State Convention and Trade Center in Seattle. The city last hosted the event in 1985.

More than 1,300 legislators will attend. But many of the more than 6,045 people who had signed up by last week are lobbyists representing businesses, labor unions and other interest groups.