The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Amid gridlock in D.C., influence industry expands rapidly in the states

Lobbyists aren’t having much luck on a gridlocked Capitol Hill — so more and more, they’re opening their wallets in state capitols around the country. Not keeping pace with the surge, say watchdog groups: the disclosure laws that are supposed to keep the influence industry in check.

Battles in legislatures between rival energy companies; powerful medical interests like doctors, hospitals and insurers; and even environmentalists and plastic bag manufacturers have fueled huge growth in lobbying spending at the state level, even as spending has plateaued — and even waned — at the federal level.

A Washington Post review of lobbying spending in states shows professional advocates reported spending at least $2.2 billion on activity aimed at influencing state legislators in 28 states where data was available during the 2013-2014 biennium — with virtually every state seeing dramatic growth over the last decade.

At the same time, total spending on federal lobbying activities has fallen. After hitting a peak in 2010, when advocacy groups reported spending $3.52 billion on lobbying, that number dropped to $3.24 billion in 2014, according to data maintained by the Center for Responsive Politics.

“When nothing’s happening in Washington, D.C., it’s happening in the states,” said Frank McNulty, a former Republican speaker of the Colorado House of Representatives who retired from office earlier this year. “You tend to see all these public policy issues work their way down to the state level because, whether it’s an environmental organization or a Fortune 500 company, they’re still going to try to move their agenda.”

The $2.2 billion spent over the last two years vastly underestimates the total spent. Disclosure rules and data collection practices vary widely by state, meaning lobbying totals from 22 states, including larger states like Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Illinois, aren’t publicly available. Some states require lobbyists and those who pay them to report every penny spent on advocacy, including the lobbyists’ salaries; other states require only that money spent directly on lawmakers and executive branch officials be reported.

But in states where data is available, the trend line soars straight up: Total lobbying spending in California grew from $424 million between the 2003-2004 biennium to $579 million, an increase of 36 percent. In New York, spending increased over the last decade by 65 percent, from $264 million to $436 million, according to data maintained by the New York State Joint Commission on Public Ethics.

“Money is the game in our political process, and we wouldn’t see this much money in our system if it wasn’t making an impact for the spenders,” said Jenny Flanagan, vice president for state operations at Common Cause.

Lobbying spending has more than doubled over the last ten years in North Carolina, New Jersey, Wisconsin, Kansas, Arizona and Ohio. Spending in at least six states — Florida, Minnesota and Washington, along with New Jersey, New York and California — topped $100 million between 2013 and 2014. Lobbying spending topped $50 million in Wisconsin, Michigan, Colorado and Maryland over the same period.

Even in states where data isn’t available, hints at the influence industry’s rapid growth exist: In Tennessee, lobbyists spent more than $10 million on events for state legislators in 2014, a small slice of lobbying activity that takes place. The number of registered lobbyists in Iowa has grown from 578 a decade ago to 708 today.

In Florida, lobbyists who seek influence with the executive branch must only report ranges of spending. Those ranges suggest advocates spent between $30 million and $120 million in the last two years lobbying state agencies, on top of the $249 million spent to woo legislators.

“There is a migration right now of government relations activity from Washington to the state and local levels,” says James Hickey, a lobbyist at Day & Zimmerman and president of the Association of Government Relations Professionals. “There’s a feeling among folks in our industry that if you can’t get progress on issues in Washington, maybe we shouldn’t focus all of our time 100 percent on Washington.”

The spending totals also don’t include an explosion in spending by outside groups on legislative elections. Just as super PACs and organizations that operate under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code have ramped up spending on federal elections, so too have they begun influencing state elections.

Lobbyists and watchdogs say a confluence of events are to blame — or credit — with the industry’s growth: The recent gridlock in Washington comes at the same time states are deciding on a host of contentious issues, from energy regulation to health care and implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Decisions on those issues, which are in the hands of state lawmakers, stand to make one industry a lot of money, at the expense of others.

“When people want to put you out of business, you have to get into the fight,” said Constance Campanella, a lobbyist whose firm, Stateside Associates, specializes in legislatures.

At the same time, term limit laws in a number of states have forced an unprecedented amount of turnover in recent years, spreading legislative power and forcing lobbyists to get to know, and influence, new faces. Big Republican gains in the 2010 and 2014 elections contributed to the turnover.

“Term limits really started to come into effect in the early 2000s, and the legislators that had been serving a long time and the committee chairs started to cycle out. That caused a growth in the lobbying industry,” McNulty said. “In state legislatures, more so than in Congress, you have more rapid turnover of the key opinion leaders. So if you’re a good lobbyist on the state level, you’re constantly investing in these new relationships.”

Campanella, the long-time state lobbyist, said her clients are also increasingly interested in influencing local elected officials, such as members of city councils and school boards. Issues like plastic bag bans, living wage laws and health care pose threats to, and opportunities for, businesses at the local level.

Watchdog groups say state ethics laws have not kept up to date with the explosion in new spending. While most states make lobbying activity reports available online, some do not, and even some that do are not listed by subject area or sponsor. For practical purposes, that means citizens in many states would not be able to find just who is lobbying in support of or opposition to any given measure without combing through thousands of records. And even the agencies themselves are often reluctant, unwilling or not empowered to take action against lobbyists who run afoul of state rules.

“There’s almost no enforcement in the lobbyist arena. The disclosure is awful, and it’s one of the areas where I think there is a serious need for some sunlight,” said Edwin Bender, executive director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

Watchdogs highlight Wisconsin as the state they say represents best practices. Wisconsin law requires lobbyists and the organization for which they are lobbying to register after just five conversations with lawmakers, and to identify the position they are taking. The state has made that data available online since 1998. After the state migrated to a new system three years ago, the data is now sortable and searchable through a simple interface.

Kevin Kennedy, director and general counsel of Wisconsin’s Government Accountability Board, said his agency’s system is designed to allow any interested member of the public to discover the interests behind a piece of legislation. In an interview, Kennedy said his best customers are legislators themselves: They use the system to educate themselves on the political contours of a given bill.

“The legislators use this when they’re debating a bill on the floor,” Kennedy said. “If there’s any glitch in the system … and the legislature’s in session, I will be getting phone calls.”

But few states follow Wisconsin’s lead. Bender said there is wide acknowledgement among both lobbyists and the government agencies that oversee their activity that current rules don’t even require all the spending to be reported. In some cases, some employees of lobbying firms do not have to register if other employees have registered. A 2011 report by Bender’s group found 23 states did not require lobbyists to report their compensation, and 15 states did not make lobbyist data readily accessible to the public.

There are more than 47,000 lobbyists registered with state governments across the country. Most are part-time advocates, active only on a single issue. Each state usually has only a small handful who account for the vast majority of major contracts with out-of-state corporations or interest groups.

“What you see in any particular state is a dozen, maybe two dozen lobbyists who handle the lion’s share of the major outside contracts,” Bender said. “That’s how they make their money, by becoming the go-to person.”