While the Legislature’s Republican “supermajority” regularly proclaims devotion to making Tennessee business friendly, on occasion a choice must be made between friends. And that is a good thing for the lobbying business.
The most publicized example of the current session has been authorizing the sale of wine in grocery stores. The dispute has pitted the 500-plus package stores, who present themselves as small businesses under attack, against convenience stores and big-box retailers, who present themselves as champions of consumer convenience.
Both, of course, are interested in maximizing profits. At this writing, it appears the liquor stores, defenders of the status quo, have prevailed again. That means in 2014 — for the seventh consecutive year — both sides will hire lobbyists for another round of what has become a major revenue generator for the lobbying business.
This year, 64 lobbyists for 43 clients listed “alcoholic beverage regulation” on their registration forms, which require a check beside areas of lobbying interest. A skim through the listings indicates the Tennessee Grocers and Convenience Store Association, leading proponent of the bill (HB610), has registered the highest number of lobbyists at 10.
Such a bill is sometimes known in the Capital as a “Full Lobbyist Employment Act” or FLEA.
Currently 525 individuals are registered to lobby the Legislature on behalf of 699 registered clients compared to 498 lobbyists representing 688 clients in 2012, according to the Tennessee Ethics Commission. The 525 matches the highest number in recent years, which came in 2008 when 658 clients were represented.
Employers of lobbyists were required to report their expenditures starting in 2008, though only in a general range — for example, between $75,000 and $150,000 — and only if the amount exceeds $10,000 in a six-month period.
As of last year, the average annual total reported expenditures have been around $40 million, if you use the top-of-the-range figures, with a slight upward trend. (If you use the bottom-of-the-range figures, the minimum average is about $10 million per year.)
This year’s FLEA contender topics range from the fees charged for cable companies to attach lines to utility poles (HB1111) to the rules for reselling concert tickets (HB1000). And there are dozens of lower-profile business battles, say for example, whether optometrists — or only ophthalmologists — should be able to inject an anesthetic into your eye (SB220). The optometrists and ophthalmologists have been arguing for decades with legislators as referees.
In the past, issues where businesses generally took the same side against labor or other interests were often hard fought as well.
That’s not really the case with the Republican-dominated legislature, as illustrated by the smooth path toward passage of Gov. Bill Haslam’s workers compensation bill (HB194), which overhauled decades of legal tradition despite protests from labor and lawyers.
The concept may not find opposition, but the devil, as always, is in the details and about 130 lobbyists are watching those, or at least checked workers’ compensation as an area of lobbying interest on their registration forms this year. So maybe that’s a FLEA, too.
Some bills come up every year, even though they never get very far. Examples include the soft drink and beer industry’s annual success in containing the “bottle bill” (HB538) to require deposits on beverages and the mining industry’s annual victory over so-called “mountaintop removal” legislation (HB43). Maybe, if there wasn’t a lobbying effort against such things, they just might be the law of the land today.
An example of an astute business lobby campaign this year, by the way, is the effort to have the state beer tax (HB999) based on volume rather than price. While holding receptions and briefing for legislators, the Tennessee Malt Beverage Association and its allies also held lobbying events around the state. Of course, it helps that there’s no heavy lobbying against it, beyond the unease expressed by local governments, which receive most the tax proceeds and stand to lose future increases in revenue as prices rise.
And AT&T, traditionally one of the state’s biggest spenders on lobbying, saw one of its top bills of the year (SB1180) zip through both chambers without even any real debate, though one provision — eliminating a state “lifeline” subsidy for low-income Tennesseans — might at first blush seem a bit controversial. There was no lobbying opposition.
All of which shows the reason lobbying is a stable, perhaps growing, business: It works. The only problem is when the other side has lobbyists, too.
Note: This was written as a column for the Knoxville Business Journal, also available HERE.