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Lobby Hobby: Who's Spending Big on Vermont's Legislative Session?

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Montpelier lobbyist Adam Necrason - STEFAN HARD
  • Stefan Hard
  • Montpelier lobbyist Adam Necrason

Liberal activists weren't the only ones disappointed when Gov. Peter Shumlin reversed course in December and dropped his plan to create a single-payer health care system.

Vermont lobbyists and their far-flung funders had been gearing up for an epic — and profitable — fight over the $2 billion tax hike the governor was contemplating to finance the program. But within weeks of Shumlin's flip-flop, two union-backed special interest groups fighting for single-payer voted to suspend their operations.

"It became apparent we weren't going to be able to raise money," says Vermont Leads' departing executive director, Peter Sterling, whose organization was funded by the National Education Association.

Also calling it quits was Vermont Cure, founded last year by the Montpelier lobbying firm KSE Partners and largely funded by the American Federation of Teachers.

No doubt many more lobbyists were sorry to see the issue die before they could kill it.

But never fear, lobbyist friends. Even without single-payer on the table, your industry will surely survive — and thrive.

It always does.

Just last week, the Secretary of State's Office released new figures indicating that 339 businesses and nonprofits spent nearly $7.2 million last year lobbying Vermont lawmakers. Much of that — a little more than $5 million — went to the 55 registered lobbyists who work for Vermont's 20 lobbying firms.

So where are the lobbying bucks going this year?

Even without single-payer, health care reform remains a hot topic. The 0.7 percent payroll tax Shumlin proposed last month to reduce the Medicaid cost-shift is a fraction of the 8 to 11.5 percent payroll tax that would've been necessary to finance single-payer. But, hey, a tax is a tax — and many businesses will lobby against it.

Every year, trade groups representing Vermont's hospitals, dentists, primary care providers and nursing homes are among the top lobbyists in the Statehouse. Given the breadth of Shumlin's other health care initiatives, that's not likely to change this year.

More money will surely follow whichever hot-button issues appear to gain traction in the next couple weeks.

Last Friday, for example, the American Beverage Association bought its first full-page ad of the year in the Burlington Free Press, opposing a two-cents-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.

The ad buy was notable because, two years ago, the beverage industry spent $51,000 lobbying and $553,000 advertising against a similar proposal.

This time around, says MMR lobbyist Andrew MacLean, the industry expects to invest in newspaper, radio and social media ads opposing the tax. While MacLean won't say how much his coalition expects to spend, he says he hopes to run a "more cost-effective" campaign.

On the opposite side, the Vermont Campaign for Health Care Security — Sterling's other group — is overseeing the fight to pass the sugar-sweetened beverage tax. The American Heart Association and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation have invested $150,000 in an "educational" campaign around the issue, according to in-house lobbyist Anthony Iarrapino, while the AHA has earmarked another $60,000 to directly lobby for the tax.

The pro-tax forces have engaged the Necrason Group as outside lobbyists and KSE Partners to run its social media campaign.

Another effort has also attracted out-of-state attention and dollars: mandatory background checks for gun buyers.

The New York-based gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety recently bought online ads from several Vermont news organizations — including Seven Days — to promote a new report on federal background checks. The group, founded and largely funded by the billionaire former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, has deployed two registered lobbyists to the state.

Everytown spokesman Jack Warner refuses to say how much his group has spent in Vermont or whether it's financially backing its local ally, Gun Sense Vermont. The latter group, which won't disclose its funding sources, has also retained the Necrason Group.

Everytown might not be sticking around for long. According to sources familiar with the situation, the group is pulling up stakes in Vermont because it doesn't think a recently introduced bill goes far enough. Warner would not comment.

Opposing the bill are a number of gun rights groups organized under the umbrella group Vermont Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs. As a state affiliate of the National Rifle Association, they'll find support this session from the NRA's northeast lobbyist, Darin Goens, who says he's already visited Vermont twice this year.

Goens says the NRA has used its email lists to alert its Vermont members about the background check bill and may organize phone banks and send postcards to mobilize them. He says it's possible, but less likely, that the organization will buy advertising.

We won't know for sure until the end of April — just weeks before the end of the session — how much any of these groups has spent lobbying lawmakers. That's because they're only required to disclose such data three times a year: in April, July and January.

Sen. Anthony Pollina (P/D-Washington) hopes to change that. He plans to introduce legislation requiring those who lobby the legislature to report advertising expenditures in excess of $1,000 within a day or two of when they're made — much like in Vermont's electoral campaigns.

"If somebody is spending a lot of money to affect the legislative debate, people have a right to know who's behind those advertisements or media buys as quickly as possible," Pollina says.

Joining him in the effort is the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, whose executive director, Paul Burns, complains that "you really don't get a full accounting until the session has ended."

Burns would know. Last year, his organization spent $339,000 lobbying lawmakers —  more than any other group in the state.

Nothing to See Here

Vermont Public Radio's Bob Kinzel appeared to break a pretty big story Monday afternoon.

"Sen. Patrick Leahy [D-Vt.] has decided to seek an eighth term in office," Kinzel reported. "His campaign staff says he's actively raising money for the 2016 election."

Hours later, the Burlington Free Press' Mike Donoghue breathlessly followed suit, writing that Leahy "is reaffirming his plan to seek an eighth term." But, true to form, the Freeps declined to credit — or even mention — Kinzel's reporting, instead attributing the news to a month-old fundraising email Leahy's campaign sent.

To Carolyn Dwyer, Leahy's longtime campaign hand, the episode amounted to a tempest in a teapot.

"This is not news. Sen. Leahy has said on multiple occasions that he intends to be a candidate in 2016," she says. "He has been transparent in the fact that he is building his campaign and preparing for a 2016 election."

Yes and no. It's true that the 74-year-old Dem has repeatedly hinted over the past two years that he might dust off the old yard signs. But last time we asked him, a few days before the November election, he said, "Oh, I haven't even thought about that."

Apparently, Leahy put on his thinking cap shortly thereafter. In late December, his campaign sent an email to supporters in which the senator asked for campaign donations "as I prepare to run for reelection in 2016."

The ever-vigilant Vermont press corps — present company included — missed the email entirely.

According to Dwyer, the latest flurry of press attention came after she confirmed to Roll Call last week that her boss was "actively preparing" for the 2016 campaign.

Actively preparing, huh? So does that mean he's in, for sure?

"There's no reason to believe that Sen. Leahy will do anything other than run for reelection in 2016," she says.

Yep, that qualifies as news.

Polling Alone

Yes, yes, we know: With a year to go until the Iowa presidential caucuses, public opinion polls won't tell you much beyond name recognition. Just ask Presidents Rudy Giuliani and John Edwards.

But a new poll of the Hawkeye State conducted by the authoritative Des Moines Register and Bloomberg Politics sheds some light on how Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is faring out in the cornfields.

First, the bad news for Ol' Bernardo: He's the first choice of just 5 percent of respondents in a poll with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.9 percent. That's well behind former secretary of state Hillary Clinton (56 percent), Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (16 percent) and Vice President Joe Biden (9 percent).

Now the good news: Warren and Biden have made it pretty clear they're not running if Clinton does. And when the Register included Iowans' second-place picks, Sanders' total moved up to 11 percent.

Even more promising: While Clinton and Biden were universally recognized by respondents and 69 percent expressed an opinion about Warren, a full 51 percent said they didn't know enough about Sanders to say. That means the Vermont independent has plenty of room to grow as he introduces himself to Iowans.

I mean, unless he keeps yelling at them.

Left Behind

As Seven Days' Alicia Freese reported last Thursday, Mayor Miro Weinberger really went after Progressive challenger Steve Goodkind in the first debate of Burlington's mayoral campaign on WVMT-AM's "Charlie + Ernie + Lisa Show."

The Democratic incumbent hit Goodkind on everything from his recent change of heart on the perpetually debated Champlain Parkway to his record as public works director.

Now a third candidate, independent Greg Guma, is getting in on the action.

The former VTDigger.org reporter and liberal activist said Friday he planned to focus on one of Goodkind's "unfortunate positions" every day this week. Guma said his fellow leftie "lacks the temperament and judgment to lead Burlington." In an ad running in this week's Seven Days, Guma accuses Goodkind of "wimping out on the F-35s."

"Everyone's attacking me," Goodkind responded Tuesday. "Perhaps they both sense this is a serious race and I'm a serious contender."

Perhaps. But it would certainly seem that Weinberger's the one to beat.

On Monday, the mayor reported having raised more than $93,000 since taking office three years ago — compared with the $3,175 Goodkind has raised since he started campaigning two months ago. Neither Guma nor Libertarian candidate Loyal Ploof filed.

Guma said Monday he'd decided to tone down his criticism of Goodkind and amplify his critique of Weinberger, explaining, "I don't want to give people the wrong impression that my focus is in the wrong place."

Then he let it fly again, saying Goodkind is "dismissive of public input" and "is simply not in touch with the grassroots."

Isn't Guma worried he's playing right into Weinberger's hand?

"I need to explain why Steve is not well-qualified and why I am better qualified and that I am much more in touch with popular movements," Guma said. "That is what this is about."

Got it.

Media Notes

After more than 20 years as a photographer and then assignment manager for WCAX-TV, Scott Waterman has taken a new job as spokesman for the Vermont State Police. Waterman replaces Stephanie Dasaro, who left the VSP late last year.

"When I was hired by Channel 3, it was like a dream come true," Waterman says. "Leaving a place so near and dear to me is tough."

Replacing Waterman as WCAX's assignment manager is former Burlington Free Press reporter Lynn Monty. After six years at the Freeps, she was laid off last October after refusing to reapply for her own job during a round of newsroom cuts.

Speaking of the Free Press, news clerk and staff writer Jessie Forand left last week for a communications gig at ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center. No word on who will replace her.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Lobby Hobby"

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