Lobbyist reports filed: American Beverage Association spent more than $500,000 fighting sugary drink tax

The Vermont Statehouse. VTD/Josh Larkin

The Vermont Statehouse. Photo by Josh Larkin

The state’s latest lobbyist reports allows the public to track how much money lines the edges of many major legislative debates. The reports reveal how much money special interests spent in the past three months.

The American Beverage Association spent the largest amount on lobbying by far — $553,000 on print and radio ads — in a fight to scuttle a proposed tax on sugar-sweetened drinks, which was eventually defeated.

From Jan. 1 to March 31, the group also paid $21,000 for its lobbyists in the Statehouse, chiefly veteran lobbyist Andrew MacLean of MacLean, Meehan & Rice. The Beverage Association of Vermont shelled out $31,900 for its lobbyists, who include MacLean and others from MMR.

MacLean has never worked with a campaign in which ad spends have been that high in one legislative session, he told VTDigger. But he added that he’d never been involved in a tax battle that involved “anywhere near as severe an expense” on businesses or had been as focused on one industry. “We felt that we were being singled out as the cause of the issue when the science specifically refutes that,” MacLean told VTDigger.

“If you look at the amount of the spending, while it’s large, it’s about 2 percent of what an annual tax bill would be,” he said. “That bill is almost as large as the payrolls of entire beverage companies that are part of the Beverage Association of Vermont.”

“Yes, it was a lot, but we felt that we weren’t able to get our message out in the Statehouse, and we felt that we had to do it in this way,” MacLean continued.

The sugar-sweetened beverage tax came to an abrupt halt in a 6-5 House Ways and Means Committee vote, though it passed the House Health Care Committee 7-4.

In other lobbying disclosures collected by the Secretary of State last Thursday, the Vermont Association of Hospitals and Health Systems (VAHHS) spent about $108,000 on lobbying expenses, and the Vermont State Employee Association spent about $92,500, the second and third highest lobbying spends, respectively.

The Service Employee International Union (SEIU) ($33,250), Vermont NEA ($31,358), and AFT Vermont ($19,317) together spent almost $84,000 on lobbying expenses over the past three months. Union legislation has been spotlighted this session, including bills allowing child-care providers, home health care workers, and deputy state’s attorneys to unionize. There was also a push to mandate agency fees.

Other top ticket items could also come as a surprise to some. The Vermont Public Interest Research Group, a non-partisan advocacy group, spent about $70,000 on lobbying expenses overall, more than the $47,281 conservative Super PAC Vermonters First spent during the same period.

But Vermonters First spent about $45,000 in advertising, likely mostly on political television ads they ran in late February. It’s unclear if the group’s latest total includes money spent on recent mailers targeting House lawmakers, but it likely does not.

In contrast, VPIRG paid about $57,700 to its lobbyists, the lion’s share of its spending. It employs a handful of lobbyists in the Statehouse, including executive director Paul Burns, energy specialist Ben Walsh, and consumer protection advocate Falko Schilling, among others.

In the death with dignity debate, Patient Choices at End of Life (Vermont), which backs so-called “death with dignity” legislation, spent about $40,000 on ads. The Vermont Medical Society, which opposes that bill, spent nothing on ads, but paid $30,000 to its lobbyists.

Predictably enough, lobbying expenses track and underlie several legislative debates which have loomed large in past months. As marijuana decriminalization efforts continue, the Marijuana Policy Project spent about $10,000 in the past three months.

The best paid lobbyists not affiliated with a traditional lobbyist firm like MMR, Downs Rachlin Martin, or KSE Partners, include Beatrice Grause for the hospitals association ($51,809); Jeanne Kennedy, whose clients include Cigna Healthcare and Green Mountain Power ($42,363); and John Shullenberger, whose clients include the American Lung Association of New England and the American Cancer Society ($39,400).

As regulations on wind energy and tar sands pipelines became topics at the committee table, Renewable Energy Vermont spent $12,000 on its presence in the building, while the Portland Pipe Line firm spent about $19,000.

The American Petroleum Association and the Vermont Petroleum Association together spent about $52,000 on lobbyists as they opposed a hike in the state’s gas tax, with lobbyist Joe Choquette pushing their agenda in the Statehouse.

Meanwhile, MacLean’s adversary and backer of a sugary drinks tax, Tina Zuk of the American Heart Association, spent about $6,200 on advertising backing that tax. Zuk accurately predicted back in March that the beverage industry would far outspend health care lobbyists on this issue – the ratio is almost 90 to 1 in advertising dollars.

Michael Sirotkin, another veteran Statehouse lobbyist, called the $553,000 American Beverage Association spend a surprising figure. “That sounds like a fairly significant amount of money for a fairly narrow issue,” he told VTDigger.

As for how lobbying firms have geared up in terms of advertising this session, Sirotkin senses that there’s been relatively little compared to past years.

“It’s been a fairly quiet year in terms of publicity,” said Sirotkin. “I don’t think you see any flooding of the airwaves on any major topic.” He said that in past years death with dignity, marriage equality, and marijuana-related debates had drawn significantly more ad spending.

He estimated that for lobbying on a specific item like a tax or a single bill, ad spending generally falls below $100,000 during any given session, but added that television spots quickly and steeply jack up the cost.

The best paid lobbyists not affiliated with a traditional lobbyist firm like MMR, Downs Rachlin Martin, or KSE Partners, include Beatrice Grause for the hospitals association ($51,809); Jeanne Kennedy, whose clients include Cigna Healthcare and Green Mountain Power ($42,363); and John Shullenberger, whose clients include the American Lung Association of New England and the American Cancer Society ($39,400).

Health care lobbyists were a dime a dozen this legislative session, records also show, as health care reform materializes as next year’s health care exchange. Familiar faces in the health care universe, from groups as diverse as the hospitals association, MVP, Brattleboro Retreat, and the Vermont Medical Society, received about $224,000 for their combined lobbying efforts in the past three months.

But the three best paid lobbyist firms – KSE Partners, Sirotkin & Necrason, and Downs Rachlin Martin – far outweighed individual lobbyists in compensation. KSE received $314,258 over the past three months, while Sirotkin got $271,750 and Downs Rachlin Martin $240,779. However, those levels of compensation are divided among all the firms’ lobbyists.

The figures reported here only cover Jan. 1 to March 31. Spending from April 1 onward is due on July 25. The state requires lobbyists to report their expenditures and pay three times a year, which has provoked some lawmakers, like House Health Care Committee Chair Mike Fisher, D-Lincoln, to call for more frequent disclosures, as more lobbyist cash filters into advertising in the heat of the legislative session.

House Government Operations Chair Donna Sweaney, D-Windsor, has said that she supports more frequent lobbying disclosures. Her committee is reforming elections law, and could adopt such provisions.

Kevin Ellis, a communications specialist with KSE Partners, said lobbying figures within Vermont should be compared with other state capitals like Boston, Albany and Tallahassee, where lobbyists spend much more.

He added: “I frankly don’t think it’s a lot of money. If there are people that worry about some nefarious impact on legislators, I just think that sells the Legislature short. Legislators are smarter than people give them credit for, and they have stronger spines than people give them credit for.”

“To draw a direct line between that kind of advertising and changing somebody’s vote — it’s a more complex equation than that,” he said.

See how much lobbyist clients – those who pay for a professional lobbyist to represent them – paid for ads and their lobbyists, here. See how much independent lobbyists, not associated with a traditional lobbying shop, received here. See how much Montpelier’s heavyweight lobbying firms received here. These spreadsheets, from the Secretary of State’s website, are also attached below.

Nat Rudarakanchana

Comments

  1. Maureen Beach :

    The soft drink tax was bad policy. If we had allowed the government to start taxing a common, everyday item like soft drinks, we would have been inviting them to start looking for more common, everyday items to tax. The last thing Vermont families need right now is more taxes.

    • Peter Everett :

      Maureen: “The last thing Vermont families need right now is more taxes”.
      Are you kidding me? If we have money in our pockets both the Feds and State will find a way to take any that remains. Come on, now, you know you can absorb any tax increase, new tax or fee that our leaders tell us. Without their common sense(???) leadership we wouldn’t know what to do with out money. That’s why they need to take it from us. They think we’re too stupid to utilize it in a proper fashion. They must be right about us, because we keep re-electing them every election. So, we have no right to complain when they take our earning from us. We should be praising them for doing so (?????).

  2. Peter Liston :

    The last thing Vermont families need right now is more diabetes and heart disease.

  3. Lee Stirling :

    Not only are more taxes for VT families something we don’t need right now, but I imagine the real reason behind the huge lobbying effort on the part of the beverage industry (Am. Bev. Assoc.) is to head off the chances of similar legislation gaining traction in other states. Vermont beverage sales are peanuts compared to larger states with tens of millions of people and taxes in those states is what the beverage industry wants to avoid.

  4. sandra bettis :

    and their ads were blatant lies. ‘your grocery bill will go up 50%’?? c’mon people! well, i guess someone believed it. money talks. just ask the nra.

  5. Research shows that higher taxes do in fact reduce use of unhealthy products. Cigarette smoking across the United States has been reduced from 40% to 19% in the last 50 years because of education and taxation. If we applied the same policies to unhealthy foods we could expect to see huge results. In my opinion, I think that many people who consume unhealthy foods and beverages have just followed the habits of their parent or guardian. For young people, the problem is they don’t know how to cook for themselves at home. That’s a recipe for obesity.

    Robert Alan Yeatts Jr.

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