JUNEAU -- There's less state money to go around than anyone can remember, but cities, boroughs and school districts are paying more than ever for lobbyists to represent their interests in Juneau.
Those public entities are on track to collectively spend at least $2.1 million on lobbying fees this year, according to disclosures filed so far with state regulators, with some lobbyists paid more than $90,000 annually.
Spending is up slightly from at least $2 million last year, and a significant rise from at least $1.75 million spent in 2010. That's even as the state faces an unprecedented budget crisis that's dried up the flow of money for infrastructure projects that many lobbyists have been asked to capture by their governmental clients.
In a pair of controversial moves, divided assemblies in Anchorage and the Southeast borough of Haines recently approved hiring new lobbyists, while dozens of other cities, boroughs and school districts this year left existing contracts intact -- many with longstanding lobbyists who are awarded work year after year.
In interviews, many public officials across the state defended the spending, saying that their lobbyists could push more effectively than legislators from their districts for the narrow interests of their cities or schools -- even as some acknowledged that the need to hire paid advocates reflects dysfunction in the state's political system. Others said that the expensive contracts make little sense when there's so little cash available.
Margaret Friedenauer was one of three Haines Assembly members to vote against a $45,000 lobbying contract with Bill Thomas, a deal that ultimately was approved. Thomas is a former four-term state legislator who co-chaired the House Finance Committee before being unseated in the 2012 election.
While Friedenauer said she respected Thomas' credibility with lawmakers, she argued that there was no point in paying him when there was no money for Thomas to bring back to Haines -- especially since most of the borough's priorities come with a price tag, like ferry service.
"I will admit that if anyone can help our community secure money for our projects this year, it's Bill Thomas," Friedenauer said in a phone interview. "But I've never elevated anyone to the level of miracle worker. And in my opinion, in this fiscal climate, that's what it's going to take."
Thomas's hiring made Haines one of 17 Alaska boroughs with its own lobbyist. Just two go without -- the Denali and Kenai Peninsula boroughs.
The oil-rich, lightly populated North Slope Borough pays four lobbyists more than $25,000 monthly, while the Northwest Arctic Borough's school district has three who are on track to earn $159,000 this year.
Anchorage boosted its lobbying staff to three this year from one, paying a team of two lobbyists $135,000 to bring back bond money for the city's troubled port expansion project. Another city lobbyist will earn $65,000 this year to work on behalf of Anchorage's municipal utility.
Both the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and its school district have lobbyists, as do a dozen urban and rural school districts. Even the city of King Cove on the Alaska Peninsula, with 900 people, pays lobbyist Mark Hickey $41,000 a year -- more than $45 for each resident.
Hickey's role this year, according to city administrator Gary Hennigh, is to help King Cove obtain about $250,000 in infrastructure money for a dump. And it's also to help coordinate city and state efforts on a federal issue: approval of a road from King Cove to the town of Cold Bay, which would run through a national wildlife refuge and which has already been rejected by U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell.
"We're taking one last run to try to convince President Obama that he needs to intervene and that Sally Jewell needs to be pointed in another direction," Hennigh said in a phone interview. "I need someone like Mark to help educate and advocate with the various people in Juneau.
"We always talk about, 'Can we afford to continue to have our state lobbyist?' And the city council's position has always been, unanimously, 'Yes,'" Hennigh added.
There are about two-dozen lobbyists with contracts for state lobbying, and many who have more than one client. Their assignments, based on disclosures made to state regulators, range from securing money for infrastructure projects to monitoring proposed tax legislation to defending existing state programs that benefit urban and rural committees.
Contracts tend to stay with individual lobbyists from year to year -- Hennigh, the King Cove administrator, said that the city was Hickey's first local government contract, in 1994, and has kept him ever since. Hickey now has a half-dozen clients from Western Alaska, reporting a total of $233,000 in contracts this year from the cities of King Cove, Akutan, and Sand Point, and with the Lake and Peninsula, Aleutians East, and Kodiak Island boroughs.
The state's financial crisis, however, has led at least some communities to think harder about the money they're spending to influence proceedings in Juneau. Thomas was a new lobbyist for Haines this year, and the Assembly selected him only after the mayor broke the 3-3 tie vote following testimony in opposition from a half-dozen residents -- some of whom said they thought citizen lobbyists would be more effective.
Thomas, 68, a commercial fisherman who was also a lobbyist before being elected to the Legislature as a Republican, said that wasn't the case.
As a former lawmaker, he said he would be able to tap his connections to his former colleagues, whom he still describes as close friends. His list of references included GOP House Speaker Mike Chenault, Democratic Rep. Ben Nageak of Barrow and another lobbyist, Sam Kito Jr.
"I will let you come in the building for an hour, two hours before I do -- see how many people come talk to you," Thomas said in an interview in the wood-paneled boardroom of the Sealaska Corp., where he serves as a director. "No disrespect to citizen lobbyists, but they don't have that."
The weekly reports Thomas has filed to the Haines Assembly have provided a window into the daily workings of a Juneau lobbyist, with descriptions of meetings, hearings and downtime. On one quiet Monday last month, with no hearings worth monitoring, Thomas wrote that he "spent the day talking to whoever would talk."
In Anchorage, meanwhile, Mayor Ethan Berkowitz -- who's in the first year of his term and was once a legislator himself -- proposed a restructuring of the city's lobbying efforts and increased spending for its presence in Juneau, while eliminating its lobbyist in Washington, D.C., which cost $240,000 in 2015.
Anchorage had been paying one Juneau lobbyist, Wendy Chamberlain, $100,000 annually since 2010. The previous mayor, Dan Sullivan, also had an "intergovernmental affairs" director on staff who did some lobbying work and earned about $100,000 a year.
Last month, Berkowitz got approval from the Assembly to bring Chamberlain back with a $70,000 annual contract, and add two more lobbyists, Jim Lottsfeldt and Kim Hutchinson, each with $65,000 yearlong contracts.
Lottsfeldt is a political ally of the mayor's who worked with unions on an independent spending effort to boost Berkowitz's mayoral campaign last year, while Hutchinson is the father of Myer Hutchinson, Berkowitz's communications director.
Before the Assembly vote, Lottsfeldt attempted to boost his own standing with an email to Assembly members touting his credentials and political connections. He included a handwritten thank-you from Gov. Bill Walker for helping to set up a dinner with Anchorage firefighters.
The proposals sparked a heated Assembly debate, where some members -- particularly those in the Assembly's more conservative bloc -- tried unsuccessfully to reduce the contracts with Chamberlain and Lottsfeldt to $50,000.
"It's not a year that we can expect great things," Assembly Member Jennifer Johnston said in a phone interview. "I think one lobbyist for the Legislature would have been enough."
Myer Hutchinson, the mayor's communications director, said in a phone interview that the Berkowitz administration picked its preferred lobbyists after getting recommendations and some solicitations.
Each of the three Anchorage lobbyists will fill specific roles -- Chamberlain and Lottsfeldt will try to make sure there's money for the city's port project in a state bond package that Walker's administration is considering, while Kim Hutchinson will focus on legislation that could affect Anchorage's city-owned utility, Municipal Light and Power.
Myer Hutchinson described the larger lobbying staff in Juneau as being justified by the state's budget crisis, which he said was forcing a "re-examining of the state's relationship with local governments" that could have "immense financial impacts" for the city.
Hutchinson acknowledged, however, that it can be hard for the public to evaluate the effectiveness of city lobbying efforts.
"People want to know what's being accomplished, and that can be sometimes a little harder to see in a black-and-white way," he said. "It's not always about the bills that are passed but the bills that are stopped, or the bills that are changed.
"We'll take a look at the progress at the end of the year and make a determination with the Assembly again on what's best moving forward," Hutchinson added.
The city lobbyists, however, will likely have a difficult time bringing back any money for the port project, said Senate President Kevin Meyer, an Anchorage Republican. The Senate Finance Committee, Meyer said, has given Walker's $500 million bond concept a cool reception.
"I don't think finance is going to be too interested in it," Meyer said.
Last year's capital budget for the whole state -- another potential source of money -- was $118 million, while the city is asking for $290 million for the port alone.
The relatively small amount of money for infrastructure spending -- down from $600 million in 2015 and $1.3 billion the year before -- means that communities that use their lobbyists to pursue cash for capital projects this year will likely end up disappointed, said Jesse Kiehl, a Juneau Assembly member who is also an aide to Sen. Dennis Egan, a Juneau Democrat.
"If you are sending a lobbyist to the Capitol this year to get big capital projects, you may not be spending your money wisely," Kiehl said.
While Anchorage may revisit its lobbyist spending next year, the Kenai Peninsula Borough will continue to do without a lobbyist entirely. Mayor Mike Navarre, a former state legislator, said he thought that a lobbyist for the borough would be superfluous.
"I've got a great relationship with all of our legislative delegation," he said in a phone interview. Even when he was in the Legislature, Navarre added, "it was kind of frustrating for me -- I felt like local government shouldn't have to hire a lobbyist to lobby our legislators. We should go directly to them."
The Kenai Peninsula does benefit from having supplied the House with its longest-serving speaker in history, GOP Rep. Mike Chenault of Nikiski, and Navarre also has an oil and gas advisor, Larry Persily, with experience navigating state and federal government.
But the borough remains one of just two in the state that don't pay their own lobbyists.
Several lawmakers themselves said they don't mind support from lobbyists representing communities or specific interests within their own districts, though Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, said he regretted seeing an "arms race" between different cities and school districts.
He attributed the growth in lobbying to a breakdown in communication between lawmakers in different political parties -- which has required paid advocates to bridge the gaps.
"The fact that you see more people, more companies, more communities hiring lobbyists speaks to their effectiveness. Should it be that way? Probably not," Wielechowski said. "You've got legislators representing those communities, and we should be looking out for them."