As much as $67 million was spent on lobbying state lawmakers last year while taxpayers spent $38 million on the total operating budget of the Tennessee General Assembly, according to reports filed with the Tennessee Ethics Commission.
The commission, which oversees enforcement of state lobbying laws, says in its 2012 report that 525 people registered as lobbyists for 1,639 clients. (Note: The report is HERE.)
Both the lobbyists and their clients are required to file two reports per year on compensation paid to lobbyists and lobbying-related expenditures such at TV ads or mailings that urge citizens to contact legislators in support or opposition to a pending bill. The reports do not give specific figures; instead they report a “range” — for example, between $10,000 and $25,000.
Separate reports must be filed for receptions, dinners and the like hosted by lobbyist employers for lawmakers.
For 2012, the reports filed show:
— Lobbyist compensation totaled a minimum of $22 million and as much as $48.5 million.
— Lobbying-related expenditures totaled at least $2.9 million and as much as $18.1 million.
— Lobbyist clients spent $565,318 on 73 events to which legislators were invited during 2012.
The combined totals for lobbying compensation, related expenditures and hosted events are at least $25.6 million and at most about $67.1 million.
“That’s an awful lot of money spent on influencing public policy,” said Dick Williams, who has for years served as an unpaid lobbyist for Common Cause, which styles itself as a public interest watchdog organization. “But it’s part of the process. Depending on your point of view, some of it’s good and some of it’s bad.”
Mark Greene is a contract lobbyist who counts the Tennessee Lobbyist Association among his clients and was paid between $10,000 and $25,000 for that role according to the association disclosure. He said the spending simply shows that many businesses and organizations “recognize how much they have at stake in the Legislature.”
The lobbyist’s role, he said, is basically providing information to legislators who may not be knowledgeable on a given subject and the ramifications of a proposal.
“What somebody thinks is a good idea for a new law may turn out to be disastrous for somebody else; it may have unintended consequences,” Greene said. “We’re looking to see how it would affect our sector. It happens every day.”
In its annual report, the commission says event spending has been steadily increasing since 2007, the first year lobbyist reporting was required after passage of ethics reform legislation in 2006, while the number of lobbyists and clients — and expenditures on lobbying — have been generally stable insofar as reporting within a “range” shows.
The upswing in events may hold true for 2013 as well. Event sponsors must file a notice with the commission in advance of the gathering and 77 notices have already been filed for 2013. Hosts need not report how much was spent on an event until later, however, many 2013 event-spending reports — even for those already held — have not been filed.
No report on 2013 lobbyist compensation or related expenses will be filed until August and the report then will cover the first six months of the year. A report on the second half of the year will not be due until February 2014.
“Obviously, the special interests that have the most money to spend can spend the most money … and probably have some of the biggest stakes in what policy is made at the Legislature,” said Williams.
From the reports filed, it appears that the biggest spender on lobbying efforts in 2012 was either the Tennessee Health Care Association, which represents that state’s nursing homes, or telecommunications giant AT&T — the difference being where the actual expenditures fell within the reported range.
Nursing homes are regulated by the state, funded substantially by state payments — including a special “bed tax”that enhances federal money nursing homes receive for low-income residents — and also deals with state laws impacting all businesses, such as workers’ compensation, general business taxes, unemployment benefits and the like. The nursing home association registered 10 lobbyists in 2012 and spent between $519,941 and $634,941 on all reported costs.
AT&T has dealt with all of the state laws impacting general business and has in recent years devoted itself to legislative efforts repealing laws depicted as vestiges of the days when it held a monopoly on phone service — this year including a $3.50 per year break on basic landline service to low-income families.
AT&T spent between $485,159 and $692,159 on combined lobbyist compensation, related expenses and events with legislators attending.
AT&T traditionally has one of the most lavish legislator receptions of the year, typically at the beginning of a session in January. In 2012, when the event was described on an invitation as “open bar and heavy hors d’oeuvres,” the reported cost was $25,159 — versus just $9,141 for the nursing home lobby’s event.
Before the 2006 ethics reform law, lobbyists could take legislators out for one-on-one wining and dining with no limits or disclosure requirements. Now, lobbyist-related events must be open to all legislators and cannot exceed a cost of $58 per legislator. The original law had a $50 cap, along with an annual cost-of-living adjustment that has raised the amount.
“They are an obligation more than a treat for a lot of members (of the Legislature) — particularly when you have four or five receptions per night,” said Greene of the events.
Typically, he said, an attending legislator will approach the lobbyist representing the hosting organization at the door and ask, “Who’s here from my district?” The lobbyist will make the introductions to launch a conversation or two, then the legislator will move on to the next reception.
Williams said the disclosure is a good thing, but the receptions — and lobbying in general — creates a perhaps inevitable contrast between those who have money to spend on lobbying and receptions and those who do not.
Lobbying, he said, “runs the whole gamut from providing accurate information on policy issues to a certain amount of wining and dining to influence things for special interests” without sound policy perspectives involved.
Top spending on payments for Tennessee legislative lobbyists in 2012 according to reports filed with the Tennessee Ethics Commission:
— Tennessee Health Care Association (nursing homes), which registered 10 lobbyists, spent between $500,000 to $600,000 on compensation plus $10,000 to $25,000 on related expenses and $9,941 on a legislative reception.
— AT&T, which registered 16 lobbyists, spent between $450,000 and $550,000 on compensation, plus $50,000 to $100,000 on related expenses and $25,159 on a legislative reception.
— Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee, which registered eight lobbyists, spent between $350,000 and $400,000 on compensation plus $25,000 to $50,000 on related lobbying expenses.
— Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, which registered eight lobbyists, spent between $350,000 and $400,000 on compensation and less than $10,000 on related expenses.
— EnergySolutions, Inc., which registered four lobbyists, spent between $300,000 and $400,000 on compensation and less than $10,000 on related expenses.
— Tennessee Association for Justice, which registered six lobbyists, spent between $300,000 and $400,000 on compensation plus $10,000 to $25,000 on related lobbying expenses and $4,594 on a legislative luncheon.