By Phil Dodd
The number of people and firms registered with the state as lobbyists—including those who advocate for nonprofits—has risen over the past few years, continuing a trend that long-time lobbyists say has been underway for decades and is making the State House a more crowded environment.
In the 2017‒2018 biennium, a total of 1,145 lobbyists, lobbying firms, and employers with in-house lobbyists were registered with the state, up 7.8 percent from the number registered in the 2015‒2016 biennium, according to figures on the secretary of state’s online lobbying disclosure database. More and more businesses and nonprofit organizations believe they need to have advocates in the State House to watch out for their interests, insiders say.
As a group, the lobbyists registered with the state are paid millions of dollars per year, providing a big economic boost to the Montpelier area. In the 2017‒2018 biennium, total compensation for lobbying reported to the secretary of state was $33.2 million dollars.
The definition of lobbying in Vermont law includes those working on behalf of nonprofits as well as businesses. Among other things, it covers anyone attempting to influence legislative or administrative action and soliciting others to do the same if they receive at least $500 in compensation for their efforts.
Lobbying is an activity protected by the U.S. Constitution. Among other things, the First Amendment protects free speech as well as the “right of the people…to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Nevertheless, courts have allowed some regulation of lobbying, such as Vermont’s requirement that lobbyists register, pay fees, and file financial reports, according to attorney Chuck Storrow, a veteran lobbyist with Leonine Public Affairs in Montpelier.
Storrow, one of six lobbyists at the firm, noted that citizens, local officials, and administration employees do not have to register to lobby, but said there seem to be more of them visiting the State House even as the number of registered lobbyists and lobbying firm swells compared with a couple of decades ago.
“The physical capacity of the State House is overtaxed, in my opinion” he said. “It can be brutal trying to get a seat in a committee room, and even the cafeteria can be busy.”
With so many people in the building, it is also getting more challenging for lobbyists to talk with lawmakers, he said. But in general, Vermont lawmakers are still very accessible, and it is usually possible to “get their ear or present testimony,” he said.
Because Vermont legislators work part-time and do not as a rule have their own staffs, the information and research lobbyists can provide is important. “Most legislators value input from lobbyists and advocates,” Storrow said. “But they take it with a grain of salt since they know we have a desired outcome we are pursuing and they factor that in.”
To retain the trust of legislators, it is important for lobbyists to be credible,” he noted. “You have to provide objective facts and put your cards on the table.” That means lobbyists and advocates must spend considerable time outside the State House researching issues, work that counts toward the lobbying compensation that must be reported, he said.
Another function of lobbyists is simply to watch what is going on so they can report to their clients or organizations about when a bill is going to be voted on or how sentiments are shifting among legislators, according to Paul Burns, executive director of the nonprofit Vermont Public Interest Research Group (VPIRG). He is a registered lobbyist entering his 19th session.
“We specifically look for opportunities to connect with our members on issues being discussed so they can comment,” he said. “We might send an email to tens of thousands of our members and urge them to email or call their legislators. It is very hard for people to track what is happening in the State House—a difficulty exacerbated by the declining number of journalists in the State House—so we work to keep them informed.”
Burns said he has witnessed both an increase in the number of Vermont lobbyists and a decline in the number of journalists covering the Legislature. “On both counts, that’s challenging,” he said.
A half-dozen VPIRG employees are registered as lobbyists and are in the capitol on a regular basis keeping track of issues important to VPIRG, but several other VPIRG employees or contract lobbyists also register because they may lobby for VPIRG occasionally, Burns said. “We try to be hypersensitive about complying with the lobbying law, which we support,” he said.
“The public has a right to know who is working the halls of the State House and who works for whom,” Burns said. “That information should be easily accessible to the public.”
In Vermont, much of that information is online. The secretary of state’s office has a searchable database (sec.state.vt.us/elections/lobbying.aspx) that lists all lobbyists, lobbying firms, and employers with employees who lobby. The database also shows how much lobbyists spend on lobbying and how much they are paid. The state even publishes an online “photobook” that provides photos and contact information for all registered lobbyists.
There are lobbyists who are in the State House every day of the session, but many of Vermont’s registered lobbyists may only get there from time to time. The database includes out-of-staters who register when they are sent to testify on a bill as well as employees of businesses and nonprofits who only rarely visit the capitol or an administrative agency. But if more than $500 of their pay comes from lobbying activities, they must pay to register and file financial disclosure forms several times a year.
With the Legislature just back in town, lobbying in Montpelier is in full swing. VPIRG’s Burns said it will be an interesting start to the year because there are about 40 new legislators this year, which he called a “big number.”
“It is a neat time at the beginning of the session,” he added. “There is goodwill and a feeling we can all work together. We’ll see how long it lasts.”