Lobbying the Legislature is big-money business in Juneau

LEGISLATURE: Companies, cities, even villages spend millions to get views heard.

March 26, 2011 

Lobbying the Alaska Legislature is an increasingly lucrative job for the top professionals, with nearly a dozen lobbyists reporting they collected over $400,000 in fees last year from interests looking to influence the state's lawmakers.

Developers of the proposed Pebble mine led spending on Alaska lobbyist salaries. Oil companies and the cruise industry were also among the major spenders and treated lawmakers to meals as they pushed for tax reductions, according to disclosure reports. Municipalities spent their tax dollars on lobbyists to get state money from the Legislature.

The leader of Alaska's lobbyist corps, Wendy Chamberlain, brought in more than $1 million in 2010. Her clients included the Pebble Partnership, Marathon Oil and the Municipality of Anchorage. The municipality paid $110,000 for her services.

Companies, utilities, local governments, unions and others with business before the Legislature spent nearly $17 million to lobby Alaska lawmakers and public officials last year. That comes out to an average of $283,000 spent for each of Alaska's 60 state legislators. The information is contained in spreadsheets recently released by the Alaska Public Offices Commission based on required disclosures from lobbyists and the entities that pay them.

"People are often shocked when they hear how much money is spent," said University of Tennessee political science professor Anthony Nownes, who specializes in lobbying. "There's a lot of money in the business."

MINING, DINING

The Pebble Partnership, developers of the huge Pebble Mine prospect in Southwest Alaska, spent more on Alaska lobbyist salaries than anyone else last year. The group laid down $378,000 to employ four of the professional lobbyists at the Capitol.

That includes both Chamberlain and her ex-husband, former Anchorage state Rep. Eldon Mulder.

Pebble's lobbying expenses also include paying for legislators and staffers to tour the area around the proposed mine. The Pebble Partnership last year paid $742 apiece, including airfare and meals, for Sen. Charlie Huggins and Rep. Neal Foster to make the trip. Pebble paid for 12 staffers and seven lawmakers the year before.

Anchorage Democratic Sen. Bill Wiel-echowski and other lawmakers pushed for a study last year of the environmental impacts of developing Pebble, the giant prospect that is hugely controversial because of its location in the headwaters of two of the five major rivers that feed Bristol Bay's world-class salmon runs. Funding was approved, but the study has been shelved amid disputes among lawmakers over who should do the research and what exactly ought to be asked.

Wielechowski said Pebble lobbying at the Capitol isn't nearly as visible as the oil companies.

"They have always had a dominant, consistent presence in the building. You just have to walk into an (oil tax) hearing and you'd see at least probably five or six lobbyists there for the oil companies," he said.

Exxon Mobil is the state's third-biggest spender on registered lobbyists, BP and Conoco Phillips maintain offices in Juneau and Conoco paid several thousands of dollars last year bringing executives to Juneau to talk to the state's lawmakers.

Lobbyists also wine and dine legislators, and they have to report if it's over $15. BP lobbyist Paul Quensel and Exxon lobbyist Dan Seckers treated the co-chairs of the Senate Finance Committee, Bert Stedman and Lyman Hoffman, and Hoffman's wife last year.

They also picked up the tab for Wasilla Sen. Charlie Huggins, Anchorage Sen. Lesil McGuire, North Pole Sen. John Coghill, Kenai Sen. Tom Wagoner, as well as Wagoner's wife.

Exxon's Seckers had another event where he reported treating "all Alaska legislators."

Seckers reported that he spent just over $900 on food and beverages for legislators, spouses and staff last year. BP's Quesnel put down expenses of nearly $500.

PROVIDERS OF INFORMATION

Sometimes it's an organization, rather than the lobbyist, who picks up the bill. Organizations are not required to report which specific legislators they treated, just what they paid. The Alaska Cruise Association, which successfully pushed to reduce cruise taxes, reported "sponsorship of legislative dinner," last year at Alaska's Capital Inn, a high-end bed and breakfast in Juneau. The cost was just over $1,000.

Nownes, the professor who has researched legislative lobbying nationwide, said he thinks wining and dining isn't going to change a legislator's mind on a policy issue but might help with lawmakers on the fence.

"We don't have a lot of good solid evidence those things corrupt lawmakers or tend to make a huge difference. One the other hand logically it seems pretty clear it probably has some impact, especially on the margins," he said. "Most of us simply can't do that."

Nownes is author of the book "Total Lobbying: What Lobbyists Want (and How They Try to Get It.)"

Lobbyists often describe their role as helping clients keep up to speed and interpret what's happening in the Legislature, something like a lawyer hired to navigate the legal system.

They say their role is to educate legislators on what a bill would mean for their client, whether it be a company, labor union, municipality or nonprofit.

"I think they tend to describe themselves fairly accurately as providers of information, I think that's their primary modus operandi. ... Clearly the information is biased in that it might play up one side more than the other. But there's not a lot of evidence that, for example, they lie. They just have a point of view," Nownes said.

Lobbying is about relationships and knowledge of how the Legislature and its culture work. The list of legislators-turned lobbyists includes Mulder, Jerry Mackie, Dave Donley, Al Adams and Joe Hayes. Gov. Sean Parnell spent time as a lobbyist for Conoco Phillips after he served in the Legislature.

State officials also go into the business. Kevin Jardell was the legislative liaison for Gov. Frank Murkowski, working on oil tax and gasline legislation, and then went to work as a lobbyist for Exxon Mobil. Jardell's total salary last year, including money from Exxon and other lobbying clients, was almost $327,000.

Ray Matiashowski, the state commissioner of administration under Gov. Murkowski, is now a lobbyist with several clients and brought in $373,000 last year. Mike Tibbles, who was the chief of staff for Gov. Sarah Palin, lobbies for the cruise industry. John Bitney, who was an aide to Valdez Rep. John Harris and ran Sen. Lisa Murkowski's primary election campaign last summer, picked up a contract this year as the lobbyist for the city of Cordova.

LOBBYING WITH GOVERNMENT MONEY

Alaska cities and school districts are among the major employers of lobbyists.

The Municipality of Anchorage and the Fairbanks North Star Borough each paid lobbyists more than $100,000. The North Slope borough put about $120,000 toward its lobbying, making it the seventh highest spender on lobbyists in the state.

The North Slope borough's main lobbyist is former state Sen. Adams, a power broker when he represented Kotzebue in the Legislature. Adams, who also works for other Northwest Alaska government, nonprofit and Native corporation interests, reported spending over $1,500 on food and drink for legislators, spouses and staffers last year, paying bills at such establishments as the Baranof Hotel and the Canton House in Juneau, as well as The Dish sushi restaurant in Anchorage.

Nome and Unalaska, communities that have less than 4,000 people apiece, each paid nearly $80,000 to their lobbyists. Even tiny Alaska communities like Galena, White Mountain and King Cove have Juneau lobbyists on the payroll.

Lobbyist spending in Alaska hit an extraordinary spike during the heated debates over oil taxes in 2006, with the oil and gas industry spending nearly half the statewide total when cash for executive time in Juneau, advertising and wining and dining was factored in.

The FBI raided legislative offices later that year and launched an investigation into corruption during the oil tax debate. Two executives of the oilfield services company Veco were convicted for bribing legislators as they operated out of the Baranof Hotel in Juneau, but none of the registered lobbyists for oil was implicated.

Overall spending on lobbying went down after that, although fees are now on the upswing. Employers reported spending more on fees last year than in 2009 and 2008, and the total combined salaries of the top 10 lobbyists are higher.


Reach Sean Cockerham at scockerham@adn.com or 257-4344.

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