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Peddle Power: In a Remote Democracy, Lobbyists Adapt to Remain Relevant

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Illustration - DIANA BOLTON
  • Diana Bolton
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When Vermont lawmakers left the Statehouse last March amid the worsening pandemic, they weren't the only ones evicted from their stately digs. The army of lobbyists who work to influence the legislative process was also driven from those corridors of power.

Unable to buttonhole senators in the halls or grab lunch with committee chairs in the cafeteria, lobbyists found their working lives disrupted by the pandemic as profoundly as any bartender's or bed-and-breakfast owner's.

And yet even as their stock-in-trade — access to lawmakers — has been curtailed, demand for their influence has remained as strong as ever. Decisions made in Montpelier, from sweeping executive lockdown orders to legislative spats over who should receive relief funds, have taken on existential import, raising the stakes for lobbyists and their clients.

"The reality is, when the pandemic hit, what did people do? Individuals and businesses alike looked to government for help," said Chris Rice, a founding partner of MMR, the largest contract-lobbying firm in the state.

Overall, spending on lobbying was steady last year, at $9.2 million. But that spending shifted to some of the largest firms, which saw hefty gains, according to data filed with the Secretary of State's Office.

MMR, whose many clients include Amazon, Verizon and Green Mountain Power, collected $1.7 million in lobbying fees, an 8 percent increase over 2019. Necrason Group, another large lobby shop with clients that include Let's Grow Kids, the Vermont State Colleges System and the American Heart Association, brought in $1.4 million, a 19 percent increase.

Industries and professions directly affected by the pandemic, including teachers, telecommunications providers and energy companies, have a vested interest in the government's myriad responses to it, said Adam Necrason, the firm's president.

This has put lobbyists at the center of some high-stakes conversations. "Lobbyists became the interpreters of these executive orders for entire sectors of the economy," Necrason said.

They also do the work of explaining in precise detail to decision makers the pandemic's impact on their clients and the most effective relief efforts, he said.

"This is not a time for lobbyists to be promoting blue-sky ideas, because we're in a crisis," Necrason said.

Anyone who thinks the transition to a "virtual democracy" via videoconferencing has made lobbyists' services obsolete misunderstands their multifaceted role, he said. Leaders of large organizations don't have the time, inclination or experience to track and participate in legislative machinations.

The livestreaming of Statehouse deliberations may increase public access to the process, but it also intensifies the need for lobbyists to help their clients cut through the noise, Necrason said.

While demand for their services remains strong, the challenges have increased significantly, especially for lobbyists who built their reputations on in-person connections with key lawmakers.

"For as long as you've had legislators and lobbyists, it's been a face-to-face interaction," Rice said. "And whether it's social opportunities, or quiet conversations in the hallway or the cafeteria, or along the sidelines of the committee rooms, it's tough to not have those."

The switch to a remote legislating process has provided some advantages. YouTube streams legislative proceedings live, and the videos are archived for future viewing. That allows lobbyists to track multiple bills at once and review proceedings they may have missed.

But overall, the work of proposing and influencing the trajectory of legislation has become profoundly more difficult.

"Lobbying is a hyper-social profession," said Maggie Lenz, a lobbyist at Leonine Public Affairs. "I would say 85 percent of my job depends on relationship building, both inside the Statehouse and outside the Statehouse over drinks."

In states with full-time legislatures, lawmakers typically have staff who work directly with lobbyists. In Vermont's 180-person citizen legislature, however, only the Senate president pro tempore and speaker of the House have staff.

So lobbyists, many of whom have deep knowledge of the Statehouse and have served as lawmakers themselves, have a kind of symbiotic relationship with legislators. The state's 473 registered lobbyists and 21 lobbying firms fill in lawmakers on how their clients view proposed bills, and lawmakers provide feedback on how the bills are being received or progressing, Lenz said.

But in the new remote legislating environment, "that back-and-forth has been totally lost," Lenz said.

Longtime lobbyists may find themselves with an edge in this environment, with their calls, texts and emails more likely to get returned, Lenz said. Meanwhile, forging relationships with first-term lawmakers — so important at the beginning of a new session — is harder than ever, she said.

Lenz said she's adapting by trying to make the most of her limited communications with lawmakers by bringing up issues she wants to address "all in one shot." Necrason's firm is similarly working on short videos outlining its clients' views, which lawmakers can review at their convenience.

Efforts are under way to try to restore some of the more direct, collaborative and collegial atmosphere, both by lobbyists and lawmakers.

The Lake Champlain Chamber's Legislative Breakfast Series resumed last month, drawing more than 20 lawmakers. Instead of gathering in a hotel conference room in South Burlington, more than 100 chamber members met over Zoom and attended online breakout sessions to talk with lawmakers about issues including taxes, childcare and the environment.

The event was a success, but the virtual format "did leave a few things to be desired," said Austin Davis, the chamber's in-house lobbyist. Gov. Phil Scott wasn't able to participate, as he has in years past, and the gift certificates to local coffee shops in lieu of a hot breakfast missed the mark for some, Davis said.

Such forums are nevertheless becoming widespread. Colchester-based Planned Parenthood of Northern New England is urging supporters to register for its Virtual Lobby Day on February 12.

Legislative leaders are also considering setting aside Wednesday afternoons for a virtual version of the social events that once took place in the Statehouse's Cedar Creek Room, where lawmakers and interest groups chatted over hors d'oeuvres.

Some leaders are even hosting virtual FaceTime office hours for lobbyists and others.

One of those is Rep. Sarah Copeland Hanzas (D-Bradford), chair of the House Government Operations Committee. She and the vice chair, Rep. John Gannon (D-Wilmington), are meeting on Tuesday and Friday mornings with people interested in their committee's work.

"It really is intended to be an opportunity to give people who have an interest in our proceedings an access point that they would ordinarily have if we were meeting in person," Copeland Hanzas said.

So far, lobbyists have been well represented. One session included board members of the Vermont Retired State Employees' Association and their lobbyist, Bridget Morris. Another was with Karen Horn and Gwynn Zakov, lobbyists at the Vermont League of Cities & Towns. And the third was with Tim Fair, partner and attorney with Vermont Cannabis Solutions, who wanted to talk about the rollout of a regulated cannabis market, Hanzas said.

The public is not allowed join these Zoom chats, which are no different than the private conversations lobbyists and lawmakers have during a normal session, she said.

"I would liken it to a hallway conversation," Copeland Hanzas said.

But conversations held in plain sight in a public building are very different than private chat rooms set up specifically by lawmakers for those hoping to influence public policy. While she would "probably not" be obliged to disclose the nature of hallway conversations if asked, Copeland Hanzas said, she's happy to discuss the virtual meetings for the sake of transparency.

Lawmakers are acutely aware of the criticism that organizations with in-house or contract lobbyists enjoy greater access than those that don't. In mid-December, then-Senate president pro tempore Tim Ashe noted that lodging interests had lobbied members of the Joint Fiscal Committee, of which he was a member, to tweak in their favor the formula of a financial relief program for struggling businesses.

"I hope, at the end of the day, the lesson isn't that every group that wants to get at the table has to hire a Montpelier-based lobbying firm," Ashe said.

The committee ultimately added $11.5 million to the program to increase payouts to some hospitality businesses, including lodging and restaurants, while others, such as wedding photographers, did not get the bump.

To what extent lobbyists obtain the results their clients are seeking and whether their influence serves the overall public good are age-old questions, but it is not difficult to draw lines between money spent and action taken.

For example, MMR picked up two sports-betting outfits as clients in 2020. DraftKings of Boston and FanDuel Group of New York City each wagered just shy of $50,000 that MMR could help them influence the doings in Montpelier.

It's hard to say whether it worked. Rice declined to disclose what MMR did for the two companies. But in his 2021 budget address, Gov. Scott proposed funding some of his initiatives with $2.5 million in proceeds from the expansion of sports betting, which would require legislative approval.

Rice likened the legislative process to the proverbial iceberg, of which only the tip is visible. He acknowledged that the switch to remote legislating doesn't always result in greater openness.

"It does make some of the stuff less visible," Rice said. "But it also makes the committee hearings more visible to a wide range of people. So it's a mixed bag in that regard."

Andrea Suozzo contributed reporting.