Once in a while, some media outlet will publish a formulaic piece about Statehouse lobbying. It happens when lobbyists and clients are required to report their spending with the Secretary of State’s office. A reporter will pore over the filings, point out the highest-grossing lobbying firms and some big-dollar clients, and get both-sides quotes from (a) those concerned with lobbyist influence and (b) those (mostly lobbyists) who think it’s not a big deal. And that’s it.
Last week, I started looking at the finance reports from the latest deadline, March 15, with an eye toward writing such a roundup. But the more I read, the more I realized that I didn’t know. After spending several days on the subject, I’ve concluded that the actual world of lobbying in Montpelier is just about unknowable. Those finance reports represent one sector of lobbying activity, and probably a small one at that.
Let’s start with a quick quiz. How many individuals are registered as lobbyists with the Vermont Secretary of State?
How about… 604.
Six hundred and four.
Now, if all those people were roaming the Statehouse on the same day, it’d be like that episode of Star Trek with the overpopulated planet that needed Captain Kirk’s germs (transmissible only by a kiss with a beautiful blond) to thin the crowds. Most lobbyists aren’t there every day. Some of them are rarely, or never, there. But that’s the size of the universe we’re talking about.
Who are all these people? Well, there are the two groups we usually think of: “black hats,” gun-for-hire lobbyists working for business and industry, and “white hats” representing nonprofits and advocacy groups. There’s a lot of overlap; Leonine, the second-largest lobbying firm, reps a lot of both.
These are the folks you read about in articles about lobbyist spending. Their lobbyists bill individual clients, and their billable time and expenses must be reported to the Secretary of State.
But that’s just two continents on this big ol’ planet. Now add the lobbyists employed by one particular business, nonprofit or advocacy group, rather than a lobbying firm. They’re salaried employees, so the cost of their services (aside from specific expenses) is not reflected in their disclosures. On top of that, you’ve got out-of-state lobbyists who represent a particular business or nonprofit. They’re always on call to advise and inform their in-state counterparts (not reportable) or visit Montpelier (reportable) when the Big Guns are needed. And then you’ve got corporate and nonprofit executives who register as lobbyists so they can roam the halls when called upon.
Taken together, those other continents account for the majority of Lobby World’s land mass, and for the most part they go unmapped in state financial filings. I’m not going to describe the entire planet, but I will identify a few landmarks. First, though, a reminder of how stacked this deck actually is.
While there are hundreds of lobbyists, there’s essentially nobody giving objective advice to lawmakers. The Joint Fiscal Office provides budgetary, financial and economic information; the Legislative Counsel assists with bill drafting and legalese. Each committee has a staffer who basically schedules hearings. The House Speaker and Senate President Pro Tem get one staffer apiece. None of these people are subject-area experts on policy issues.
And that’s it. Every time a legislative committee ponders an issue or a bill, they’re surrounded by lobbyists and they have no one to act as a counterweight.
Now, lobbyists will tell you that their reputation is on the line every day. They’ve got to shoot straight because If they mislead lawmakers, they’ll never eat lunch in this town again. That’s true in a very limited way. They’d better not tell actual lies. But if they provide the facts and interpretations that suit their clients’ interests, well, they’re just doing their job. It’s up to overburdened and underpaid lawmakers to figure out what’s fact and what’s spin.
Also, lawmakers and lobbyists are essentially colleagues sharing a common workspace. They have more in common with each other than with the rest of us. Relationships are forged and deepened in the crucible of the Statehouse. I’ve never gotten any sense that there’s actual corruption; no bags of money changing hands. But there’s a synergistic relationship. That’s a subtle but pervasive form of influence.
And there’s the revolving door. A lot of former lawmakers, state officials and political types wind up in lobbying. It’s lucrative, and their past experience, connections and friendships are a boon to lobbying. When a Bob Dostis or Vince Illuzzi or Justin Johnson or Jim Dandeneau or NKOTB Ethan Latour (formerly comms guy for Gov. Phil Scott, now with MMR) comes calling, they don’t need any introduction.
Now for a few examples of how the Wide World of Lobbying is far greater than those financial disclosure forms.
The highest-grossing lobby firm is MMR. It has seven registered lobbyists on its payroll.
They are dwarfed in size and scope by the largest lobbying entity of all, VPIRG. It has 44 lobbyists registered with the state. Now, not all of them spend all their time at the Statehouse, but that’s a level of resource surpassed by none.
VPIRG’s financial filings don’t reflect the breadth of their efforts. It has reported spending $114,580.42 on lobbying since the beginning of last year, but that doesn’t include the personnel costs of their Statehouse-facing staff. MMR, which has to disclose pretty much everything, has billed clients for $2,197,143.10 in the same period. I doubt that MMR has really spent nineteen times more than VPIRG on lobbying, if you count the nonprofit’s staff costs.
Let’s turn to one of the corporate heavy hitters in Montpelier, Green Mountain Power. It reports spending $135,454.63 on lobbying since January 2021. That includes the efforts of MMR’s seven lobbyists plus two others. But it includes almost nothing about the seven GMP staffers who are registered lobbyists. If MMR’s Heidi Tringe does a bit of lobbying for GMP, it’s on the disclosure form. If GMP executive Liz Miller does Statehouse work, specific expenses are disclosed but most of it is merely her job, and her salary is definitely not part of GMP’s official lobbying expenditure.
Disclosed expenditure on Miller’s form? $2,074.35. Since January 2021. Ha.
Next we turn to the shock troops of the lobbying world: the out-of-staters, usually from big metropolitan areas, who represent specific businesses or industries. They are rarely seen in the Statehouse or anywhere in Vermont, for that matter, but they are always on call if needed. Let’s meet a few, courtesy of the Secretary of State’s Lobbyist Photobook (downloadable here, click on “Lobbyist Photobook”at lower left).
Patty Arcese is a Boston-area lobbyist with a multi-state firm called State and Federal Communications. She’s a lobbyist for Amgen, the multinational biotech firm. Paul Baltzell hails from beautiful Sausalito, California. He lobbies for Salesforce, a provider of “enterprise cloud computing services,” Lord love a duck.
A few more, rapid fire: Christopher Buchanan of Plymouth, MA, wearing the snappy blue vest of Walmart. Stephen Burm of Medford, MA, on behalf of Anheuser-Busch. Greg Connors of Malta, NY, here to represent GlobalFoundries’ neverending search for preferential treatment. Patrick Dwyer of Purchase, NY, for Mastercard. And one more: Richard Englehardt of Lehi, UT, on behalf of Ancestry.com. Yup, Utah, Ancestry. Perfect.
If I had an intern and an abusive nature, I’d have them pore over the Photobook and count up how many lobbyists are in each category. In the absence of the former and the arguable absence of the latter, let’s just say “a lot.”
One other feature of the Photobook is the Subject Matter Index, which lists lobbyists according to what sectors or issues they work on. Most lobbyists handle multiple subjects, so it’s a long index. The most lobby-intensive issue, unsurprisingly, is health care. It’s a big lucrative multifaceted industry that interfaces with government at almost every turn.
There are 129 lobbyists working on health care issues in the Statehouse.
Again, not all of them are there all the time, but when a big issue hits the stage, they’re waiting in the wings. That’s a hell of a lot of cumulative influence on health care legislation. A few represent consumer interests, but most (and the best-paid) are there on behalf of the industry.
Other categories with more than 50 lobbyists: Environmental issues with 80, Energy with 69, Education with 55, and Climate Change with 54.
This may be the longest post I’ve ever written, and my gratitude for the hardy souls still reading this. In closing, I’ll cover the ground covered by all those boilerplate stories in the political press.
The top-billing lobby shop in Montpelier, as always, is MMR at $2,197,143.10 since January 2021. MMR represents a whopping 77 registered clients, most of them big corporations. Notable clients: 3M, Amazon, GlobalFoundries, CoreCivic, PhRMA, Burr and Burton and St. Johnsbury Academies, and a brace of sports-betting outfits.
A strong second place goes to the Necrason Group with $1,849,259.92 in billings. It’s mostly a white hat firm with a few exceptions (Comcast, Optum), repping entities like ACLU-Vermont, Renewable Energy Vermont, and The Sentencing Project. And Ben & Jerry’s; ask a lobbyist for your free pint.
Coming in third is Leonine Public Affairs with $1,366,367.73. Forty-two clients, including AT&T, Delta Dental, Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, and Vermont Gas.
Third is Downs Rachlin Martin, one of Vermont’s biggest law firms. DRM billed its 29 lobbying clients a total of $759,164.82 since January 2021. Those with open checkbooks include Apple, Bank of America, Consolidated Communications (formerly Fairpoint), the American Cancer Society, and the Vermont Retail and Grocers Association.
Fourth is Primmer Piper with $420,585 in billing. Big clients: National Life Group, State Farm, the Motion Picture Association, Burlington Electric Department, and McDonald’s.
There’s more, but that’s enough. More than enough on all counts. But it’s what it takes to merely provide a sketch of this massive world that wields immeasurable influence on the kind and quality of product that emerges from the sausage factory. Thanks for reading.