The Alaska State Legislature is putting the finishing touches on a $2 billion capital budget. Even though it’s small in comparison to previous years, it still funds hundreds of projects big and small across the state. But how do lawmakers decide which ones take priority? APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez takes a look at how one set of players figure into that process: lobbyists.
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Lobbyists are well aware of their reputation. It’s not the sort of job that six-year-olds say that they want to be when they grow up. From the looks of it, it involves a lot of ducking in and out of legislators’ offices and lingering on benches outside of committee rooms. One of their own describes them as seagulls ready to feast on a stream full of rotting salmon carcasses.
But if you have a project you want funded, you might want to turn to one. Ray Gillespie has been lobbying for 25 years, and he helps cities like Kodiak and Unalaska navigate the politics behind the capital budget.
“Hiring a lobbyist smooths out the process,” says Gillespie. “It also I think increases the chances that you’ll be funded because the lobbyist presumably understands the process — understands who to talk to, who not to talk to, who’s in the majority organization, who isn’t, who’s on Finance, who isn’t. Most municipal employees and a lot of municipally elected officials don’t understand the basic fundamentals of how the process works.”
Nearly 40 cities and boroughs hired lobbyists for this legislative session. Combined, they spent well over a million dollars to make sure that legislators heard about their priorities.
According to state filings, the Northwest Arctic Borough spent the most, putting $110,000 toward a salaried government affairs staffer. It seems to be paying off. When the Senate picked over the governor’s proposed budget — basically a first draft of the document — they didn’t take out items. They added them: There was money for the borough’s magnet school, ultrasound equipment, and an upgrade of their fuel dispenser. All told, their district got $45 million.
Meanwhile, Unalaska spent about $80,000 on Gillespie’s services. Mayor Shirley Marquardt says that they haven’t gotten everything they want, but they’ve managed to protect $6 million in funding for water treatment plants. She’s pleased with the arrangement.
“Communities all over the state think it’s a worthwhile expenditure to have someone, if you can afford it and if you’re lucky enough to get somebody who really understands the process,” says Marquardt.
Marquardt says that by having someone in Juneau, the city saves a lot of staff time and travel money. Their lobbyist can schedule a meeting with a senator’s office without having to board two flights.
As co-chair of the Senate finance committee, Anchorage Republican Kevin Meyer plays a major role in crafting the capital budget. He says that there are a lot of factors that come into play. They have to look at what the governor wants; they talk to all the other lawmakers to see what they want; they factor in how much districts have traditionally gotten. They also collect project request forms from communities and organizations across the state. This year, they got nearly $4 billion worth of asks and whittled that down to $2 billion in funded projects.
Meyer downplays the influence that lobbyists have, but says they do have their place.
“I look at them as a hired gun,” says Meyer. “I mean they’re representing their client, maybe not necessarily what’s best for the whole state, but what’s best for their client.”
Gillespie gets that a lot.
“Yeah, of course. We’re salesmen, but most lobbyists have some experience and background in government or in the legislature.”
And he says that in a state with so many small communities and such a small tax base, state funding can play a big role in a city’s budget.
“Their goals and objectives reflect that they are political subdivisions of the state,” says Gillespie. “They have limited ways of raising money. In some cases, they have very little taxable property and very little in terms of local revenues.”
Gillespie says that the most successful municipalities are the ones who can argue how their project is good for the state at large. But even if you’ve got a project that helps more than just your community or that has a long-term benefit in terms of safety or education or even future revenue, it still might not get funded. There isn’t a limitless supply of money, and there’s plenty of competition for that pool. And then politics enters the process.
Gillespie understands that can be confusing to most people.
“Well, if you’re looking for reason and logic in the process, you’re probably going to be disappointed. It comes together, and it’s a mystery to me sometimes how it happens, and I’ve been doing it for almost 30 years. So, it’s not an exact science. But for the layperson, you know, the average Alaskan, the process probably makes no sense at all. And I totally understand that. I get that.”
And that confusion is exactly what keeps Gillespie, and the dozens of other lobbyists around the Capitol, in business.