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

Comment Policy

VTDigger.org requires that all commenters identify themselves by their authentic first and last names. Initials, pseudonyms or screen names are not permissible.

No personal harrassment, abuse, or hate speech is permitted. Be succinct and to the point. Comments should be 1000 characters or fewer. If your comment is over 500 words, consider sending a commentary instead.

We personally review and moderate every comment that is posted here. This takes a lot of time; please consider donating to keep the conversation productive and informative.

The purpose of this policy is to encourage a civil discourse among readers who are willing to stand behind their identities and their comments. VTDigger has created a safe zone for readers who wish to engage in a thoughtful discussion on a range of subjects. We hope you join the conversation. If you have questions or concerns about our commenting platform, please review our Commenting FAQ.

Privacy policy
Thanks for reporting an error with the story, "Lobbyist reports filed: American Beverage Association spent more than..."