How Many Lobbyists Does It Take? Vermont's $8 Million Influence Machine
Like moths to a flame, nothing attracts Vermont’s corporate lobbyists to a Statehouse committee room like the threat of an industry tax hike.
So it was no surprise last week to find a standing-room-only crowd crammed into the Senate Finance Committee’s first-floor digs as the panel whittled down a list of potential new taxes in search of $10 million in revenue.
Clustered together cheek by jowl were lobbyists for the real estate, retail, tobacco and banking industries — each of which has been targeted this year by one committee or another looking to raise fast cash. Some lobbyists in the room had so many clients in the committee’s sights, it was tough to say which ones they were there to protect.
Take, for instance, veteran lobbyist Andrew MacLean of the Montpelier-based lobby shop MacLean, Meehan & Rice. As he looked on from the side of the room, the committee considered tax after tax targeting his clients, including DISH Network, Walmart, the International Bottled Water Association and the Vermont Mortgage Bankers Association.
For MacLean and his confederates, the closing days of this and every legislative session is akin to a game of Whac-A-Mole. As soon as they bonk one tax idea on the head, another one pops up to taunt them.
But no matter which rodents remain standing, Montpelier’s mallet-wielding lobbyists continue to do just fine.
Figures released by the Secretary of State’s office last week show that special interests spent more than $3.41 million in Vermont on lobbying and issue advertising during the first three months of the year. That exceeds the $3.26 million spent during the same quarter last year and the $2.58 million spent the year before.
And while the total lobbying price tag for the ongoing legislative session won’t be clear until the next filing deadline in July, we know that special interests plunked down $7.92 million in the 12-month period ending in March.
To put that in perspective, they’ve spent nearly $44,000 for each of the 180 legislators in the Statehouse.
So who’s doling out all that cash?
Among the top 10 are many of the usual suspects: the hospital lobby, the state workers union, the conservative super PAC Vermonters First, the liberal Vermont Public Interest Research Group and good old Entergy Nuclear Vermont Yankee.
With the legislature contemplating whether to let terminally ill patients end their own lives, it should come as no surprise that both sides of that debate made the list, too. Opponents spent approximately $50,000 on advertising and lobbying, while supporters spent $78,000.
It’s not always so clear how much special interests spend to make their case.
For instance, when the Senate contemplated a moratorium on ridgeline wind projects earlier this year, the industry group Renewable Energy Vermont took its pro-wind message to television screens around the state. According to executive director Gabrielle Stebbins, the group spent $19,000 last winter on the ads, which extol the power, beauty and job-creating potential of wind.
But come last week, when lobbying and advertising totals were due to the secretary of state, there was not a word about the TV spots in REV’s filing. The group listed just $12,000 in expenditures to represent the portion of Stebbins’ time spent lobbying.
According to Stebbins, that’s because the ads were intended “to celebrate the trade association’s successes regarding recently completed projects” and they “do not direct anyone to contact a legislator or address any legislation.”
Factually true? Sure. But if you believe they weren’t run with the moratorium debate in mind, then I’ve got a ridgeline in the Kingdom to sell you.
Blowing industrial wind and every other issue away was the fight over a sugar-sweetened beverage tax. Last week’s filings show that a short-lived effort in the House to impose a penny-an-ounce tax on everything from Coca-Cola to Gatorade prompted the biggest lobbying blitz in years.
Not surprisingly, it wasn’t an even match.
The American Heart Association, which supports the so-called soda tax, spent $9000 on lobbying and just $6000 on radio and print ads. The American Beverage Association, on the other hand, spent $21,000 on lobbying and a whopping $553,000 on radio and print ads in opposition to the tax.
To put that in perspective, that’s way more than the $346,000 Gov. Peter Shumlin spent on his entire reelection campaign last year.
All on a stinkin’ soda tax!
Tina Zuk, the Vermont lobbyist for the heart association, says she thinks the beverage association’s carpet-bombing did the tax in.
“How could [the ads] not impact legislators when they see them every single day in dailies, weeklies, small papers and big papers?” she asks.
But über-lobbyist MacLean — who, of course, represents the beverage industry too — says he thinks “it was important to get our message out” when lawmakers were threatening to impose a $24 million tax on his clients.
“I have not been involved in a campaign that’s that expensive,” he says. “But I’ve also never been involved in a fight over a tax as drastic as that.”
The ABA doesn’t fool around. Funded by the likes of Coca-Cola, Pepsi, the Dr Pepper Snapple Group and scores of other bottling companies, the national trade association donated nearly $1.5 million to federal campaigns and spent more than $2 million lobbying national politicos in the last two years. That doesn’t include the cash they’ve dumped into Vermont lobbying and elections — nor into the five dozen other states and cities that have considered some iteration of a soda tax in recent years.
“We’re the subject of a very serious, extreme and discriminatory policy proposal in the soda tax,” says the ABA spokesman Chris Gindlesperger. “We spent what was necessary to educate lawmakers and consumers.”
But even the half million the national group spent fails to reflect the true cost of the industry’s war against the soda tax.
See, MacLean and five MMR colleagues who also lobby on the issue, are paid not by the ABA, but by its state partner, the Beverage Association of Vermont. That group, which is funded by regional bottling companies such as Coca-Cola of Northern New England, spent another $32,000 on lobbying last quarter.
Teaming up with the beverage industry to kill the tax was the Vermont Grocers’ Association, which spent $18,000 on lobbying last quarter — though much of that sum went toward the grocers’ other legislative fights.
Here’s looking at you, candy tax!
“Much like any issue out there, you’re always looking to see who has similar interests,” says VGA President Jim Harrison, whose outfit hires two William Shouldice & Associates lobbyists to help out in the Statehouse.
And then there’s KSE Partners, Montpelier’s biggest lobby shop. They don’t work for the beverage industry directly, but two of their lobbyists — Jill Sudhoff-Guerin and Nick Sherman — took in $12,000 last quarter from the Boston-based Dewey Square Group.
Who paid Dewey?
You guessed it: the American Beverage Association.
According to Dewey Square spokeswoman Ginny Terzano, the ABA hires Dewey’s “grassroots/grass-tops practice” to “do community organizing and education around the soda-tax issue” in many states. Dewey then subcontracts the Vermont work to KSE in Montpelier.
The only problem is, unless you’re looking for the connection, you’d never find it. KSE has no obligation whatsoever to report who’s paying its paymasters.
It’s like lobbyist laundering.
“The concern always is that stuff gets hidden because you route things through different lobbying firms,” says Secretary of State Jim Condos.
Even a seemingly simple search of the state’s arcane lobbyist disclosure database is cumbersome, making it impossible for most Vermonters to figure out who’s influencing their laws.
“It’s work. It should be easy,” says House Government Operations Committee chairwoman Donna Sweaney (D-Windsor), who says even she can’t navigate it. “I want to have it be up front where you can find it. It shouldn’t be a situation where you’re looking for it all the time.”
Both Sweaney and Condos say they hope to revamp the online database next year — and perhaps require more frequent and in-depth disclosure from lobbyists. At present, they’re required only to file with Condos’ office three times a year and just once during the legislative session. That means that any spending during the final, crucial five weeks of the legislative session isn’t reported until long after legislators have left the building.
Of course, none of this will make much difference until legislators get serious about reforming the state’s campaign-finance laws. Lobbyists are particularly influential in this state because Vermont legislators have virtually no professional staff and find themselves reliant upon those who can readily provide ideas, strategy and manpower.
But they’re also influential because, duh, they donate to political campaigns and, more importantly, they direct their corporate clients to do the same.
“The same interests that can afford to make large contributions can afford to have a direct presence in the building,” says Vermont Public Interest Research Group executive director Paul Burns, whose own organization spent $71,000 last quarter and includes 11 staffers who lobby. “Wealth continues to bring great advantages to those who have it — not exactly a great revelation.”
It ain’t a coincidence that the folks who spend the most on lobbying — from the Service Employees International Union to Comcast to the health care, tobacco and beverage industries — are the same folks who donate the most to political candidates in Vermont.
But if you ask members of the Senate, who voted down a corporate political donation ban three weeks ago, or members of the House, who will likely do so soon, they’ll say Vermont isn’t overly influenced by corporations.
Tell that to Coca-Cola.
The Vermont House showered accolades on two longtime media stars last week.
On Tuesday, it honored Vermont Public Radio’s Joel Najman with a resolution congratulating him on 30 years of creating and hosting the station’s iconic “My Place” rock-and-roll radio program that airs on Saturday nights. Three days later, the House honored Candy Page with a resolution in recognition of her own three-decade-plus run at the Burlington Free Press, which ended with her April retirement.
Meanwhile, VTDigger has hired former Burlington Free Press online editor Tom Brown to serve as assignment editor and data reporter — part of a staff expansion financed by a $75,000 grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. The online news outlet has also hired Rick Woods to share publishing duties with founder Anne Galloway. A board member of Digger’s parent organization, the Vermont Journalism Trust, Woods was the first paid employee at Seven Days, serving over the years as sales, circulation and general manager.