There are over 10,000 registered lobbyists in Washington, DC. By contrast, Juneau barely breaks the hundred mark. But even though they’re a small tribe, they still wield plenty of influence in the state capitol.
Money. Huge amounts of it flow into Juneau every January.
There’s the $9,000 reception that the Alaska Municipal League throws at the Baranof Hotel. The $3,000 that Holland America spent flying in a former legislator to lobby on their behalf; and the $2,000 that the Resource Development Council spent on booze and swag at an event celebrating women in energy. And these numbers don’t even include the lobbying contracts themselves.
All told, nearly 400 businesses, professional associations, and municipalities spent over $7 million lobbying the state legislature this session, according to data from the Alaska Public Offices Commission. In 90 days, lobbyists earned twice what all the state’s legislators get paid over the course of a year.
“It does seem rather high,” Peter Quist said.
He’s the research director of the National Institute of Money in State Politics, which studies just what its name suggests.
Because disclosure laws vary so much across the country, his group has only been able to get solid lobbying data from a handful of states. And when we run through a comparison of Alaska to the states he has on file, the best match he has is Wisconsin.
“I’m not sure exactly how the populations compare between Alaska and Wisconsin, but I would imagine that Wisconsin is substantially higher,” Quist said.
It’s about eight times higher. Their state budget is a lot bigger, too. But by the time the year wraps up, registered lobbyists in both places will earn about $15 million. So, why is Alaska in the lobbying major leagues with a much more populated state? Quist can’t say for certain, but he says it might have to do with Alaska’s resource-based economy.
“There are obviously some very vested interests there,” Quist said.
The oil and gas industry put more money toward lobbying this session than any other, spending over $1 million. With oil taxes being the biggest issue of the legislative session, their fleet of lobbyists were regulars in the Capitol as a bill lowering those taxes made its way from committee rooms to the governor’s desk. ConocoPhillips had a team of four on contract, and BP had a full-time office in Juneau for its staff.
None of the big three North Slope producers said okay to a taped interview about their lobbying efforts. ConocoPhillips took questions by e-mail, responding that most of their time in the capitol came at the legislature’s request. BP and Exxon declined to comment at all.
But Kara Moriarty lobbies for the Alaska Oil and Gas Association, or AOGA, and she offered to give me her take.
“It’s no secret and should be no surprise that the oil and gas industry have expenses in Juneau that qualify as lobbying,” she said.
Moriarty says it would be strange if the oil industry didn’t have a presence. You’ve got companies from Anheuser Busch to Xerox all there, along with school districts, hospitals, and municipalities. Oil dwarfs all of those groups in terms of its effect on Alaska’s economy.
“When we pay, you know, six, seven, eight billion – billion dollars with a “B” – in tax revenue and our lobbying expenses are one to two million or whatever it was this past session, it’s a very minute part of the business we do in Alaska,” Moriarty said.
Sen. Hollis French voted against the oil tax cut and has campaigned for its repeal. But the Anchorage Democrat actually agrees with Moriarty’s take on why the oil industry has an outsized influence in Juneau.
“They are a huge employer, so it almost makes sense that they’re going to be a powerful force in the legislature,” French said.
And they wield that power in a pretty sophisticated way. While it’s only been a few years since the legislature was rocked by a corruption scandal involving the oil industry, French says there’s more nuance to what he’s seeing these days.
The companies, along with business associations like AOGA and the Resource Development Council, are spending their lobbying money on a mix of education and persuasion. They testify before committees; they meet with legislators; they put on receptions and host catered presentations called “Lunch and Learns” that are popular with legislative staff looking to get free food.
They also fly lawmakers to the North Slope to check out their operations. In December, Conoco spent $17,000 to send a dozen legislators up there, according to APOC filings. French says he’s been on one of these trips, and that they’re sort of a necessary evil if you’re going to learn about how the oil industry operates.
“There’s no way to visit them and see them without being a guest of the oil industry. They are private property; these are dangerous facilities; you wouldn’t want people going in there unescorted, and so by its very nature — by the location of these facilities and their ownership structure – you’re going to have to go there as a guest of the industry,” said French. “Now that being said, just because you’ve taken a field trip to the North Slope shouldn’t necessarily mean that you’re in the bag for the industry.”
While oil companies may spend a million or more each year on government relations, there isn’t an equivalent force in opposition to them. Based on APOC reports and interviews with legislators, there wasn’t a single registered lobbyist who was paid to push against legislation to lower taxes on oil companies.
The closest you can get to that is David Gottstein, who helped found the advocacy organization Backbone. He traveled to Juneau this session in an effort to defeat the bill. Since he only spent a small amount of time interacting with legislators, he didn’t have to track his expenditures for APOC. But he says that at most, his group spent a few thousand dollars on lobbying legislators in Juneau.
As far as what he thinks of how much the oil companies spends, he actually echoes AOGA’s point that when you look at their overall budget, the industry isn’t spending very much on lobbying – even if it seems like a lot in comparison to other groups. Gottstein characterizes it as an investment.
“Why would they ever spend billions of dollars to enhance oil recovery if they can accomplish the same per-share profit result by literally spending one-thousandth of that – millions instead of billions – by influencing and overwhelming our public policy debate?,” Gottstein said.
So, is this the best system we’ve got? Kathy Keily works for the Sunlight Foundation, an open government group in Washington, DC, and she says that’s a tricky question to answer, and that money spent on lobbying can definitely have a distorting effect on policy.
“We’re seeing just an enormous disparity on the side of corporate interests as opposed to consumer interests,” she said.
But Keily says that there are other ways people and groups without much money can have their voices heard. They just need to know what conversations are already happening. That means tracking government. All the transparency in the world is not going to do a thing if nobody is keeping an eye on it.