Published on Monday, July 10, 2000 in the Washington Post
Public Barred as Corporations 'Host' Governors' Meeting
by Mike Allen
STATE COLLEGE, PA - Hoping to influence state governments as they muscle into areas that once were federal responsibilities, lobbyists and corporations have begun showering gatherings of the nation's governors with the cash and attention they once reserved for Washington.
The four-day annual meeting of the National Governors' Association, which ends Tuesday, is closed to the general public but is wide open to generous corporations, which underwrote most of the event's $1.5 million budget.
In addition, 108 companies donated a total of $1.2 million to the Pennsylvania host committee to pay for elaborate nightly entertainment and other costs of the gathering. The rest of the budget came from registration fees, with government officials paying $295 each and private-sector attendees shelling out $780 each.
Eight companies, including Apple, AT&T and US Airways, donated $50,000 each in cash or products and were "steering committee hosts." Chipping in $25,000 each were 17 "corporate hosts," including Anheuser-Busch, General Electric and Sprint. Nine more companies, including Boeing, Pepsi and Pfizer, gave $15,000 each and were recognized simply as "hosts."
For $5,000, a company could be an "associate host," and for less than that, the program offered "special thanks."
Philip Morris Cos. is both a "corporate fellow" and a "corporate host."
NGA meetings are very well attended: Thirty-nine governors were in State College this weekend. Social and informal events at the meetings make it easy to buttonhole multiple governors.
The quality time for contributors began Friday, the day before the meeting opened, when about 60 sponsors of the host committee played golf with Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge, a Republican who is often mentioned as a vice presidential possibility for Texas Gov. George W. Bush.
Nell Abom, Ridge's deputy communications director, said the corporate contributions meant that taxpayers had to pay only for security and staff time. She said most donors to the host committee were based in Pennsylvania and were eager to "step up to the plate to show off the New Pennsylvania," using a trademark Ridge expression. She said that technology companies, especially, recognized the value of putting the state "in front of opinion leaders and state and national policymakers."
State troopers stopped the public at the foot of the road to the heavily secured conference center, sparking protests over the lobbyists' access. On the nearby Penn State campus, students printed up black T-shirts that said "Democracy" with an arrow pointing one way, and "NGA" with an arrow going the other way.
Milford Sprecher, business development manager for SAP America Public Sector, a "corporate fellow" that sells software to governments, said an admission charge is not a shocking concept.
"We could be talking about the auto show," he said.
And Joe McCormick, director of state and government relations for the Boeing Co., another "corporate fellow," said, "If you have the public in there, it's not going to be a freewheeling exchange of ideas."
Several lobbyists, hoping to dispel any perception of backslapping, said the governors occasionally use the sessions to give them bad news, often preceded with softeners like, "I see where you're going, but . . ."
NGA's spokeswoman said the closed meetings have been controversial for years but defended them as necessary if governors are to get work done at what she called "a private business meeting."
"That's why we stopped calling it a 'conference' and call it a 'meeting,' " said Christine LaPaille, the group's public affairs director. "There was a perception that a 'conference' allowed everyone to come in and participate."
The combined annual budget for the NGA and its the Center for Best Practices, an affiliated nonprofit group that accepts corporate contributions, is $16 million. LaPaille said the Corporate Fellows program primarily provides access to the NGA staff.
"Corporate lobbyists already have access to governors," she said. "They don't get it through NGA."
But Verizon Communications, which was Bell Atlantic before its merger with GTE, received a remarkable platform after paying dues as a "corporate fellow" and raising $150,000 for the State College meeting as a "host committee co-chair."
Ivan G. Seidenberg, Verizon's president and co-chief executive officer, gave a speech and took questions from governors this afternoon at the same session where they heard from retired Gen. Colin L. Powell, now the chairman of America's Promise, which promotes volunteerism.
Seidenberg, lamenting "the mismatch between old regulation and new technology," called for the passage of several bills eliminating what he called unneeded regulations. "As Verizon Communications, we will be able to put our expanded scale and scope to use as a positive force in communities all across the country," he said. "In our case, bigness works, because we generate the cash to reinvest in the business."
Then Seidenberg took questions, which were not exactly harsh. Wisconsin Gov. Tommy G. Thompson, a Republican, asked "what we can do as governors" to speed approvals to give the former Bell companies "the opportunity to get into the long distance market a lot faster."
"It just seems that the delay is something that is not good for America," Thompson said.