Lobbyists are on track to hit a record amount of compensation for working the Statehouse this year, with a consumer advocacy group, the state employees’ union and a health care organization leading the way.
More than $5.5 million was paid to the more than 400 lobbyists registered with the Vermont Secretary of State. The most recent reports were filed June 15th. Among the information they show is how much each lobbyist earned up through the end of May. Lobbyists are employed by more than 400 businesses and advocacy groups.
The totals include spending through the final days of the regular session that ended May 19. Another report scheduled to be filed in September will include expenses during the one-day special session on June 21.
The amount lobbyists earned last year at this same time was almost the exact same amount, but increased with the next report, which covered spending after May 30. In 2015, the state changed the dates when reports were filed. Prior to 2015, a report required to be filed in July would capture spending in June. Now, June expenses are shown in the report that will be filed in September.
The Vermont Public Interest Research Group spent the most on lobbying in the first five months of this year, $113,739. The consumer advocacy group lobbied on a variety of issues, including tightening the regulation of toxic materials and support for the creation of a state Ethics Commission. They also worked on several issues that either passed one chamber or did not get the attention of lawmakers, such as a proposed carbon tax.
Burns said lobbying is expensive.
“Each year, thousands of Vermonters contribute some of their hard-earned dollars to VPIRG so we can fight for the public interest,” Burns said. “And every day, we’re proud to be making the case on their behalf for clean energy, safe products, affordable health care and government reform. It’s not easy or cheap to take on some of the biggest special interests there are, but that’s exactly what people expect us to do with their money when they join VPIRG.”
Lobbyists for the union representing state workers were second in compensation, at $110,476. Vermont State Employees Association Executive Director Steve Howard said his organization was vigilant this year because of the “great unknown” of new leadership at the Vermont Statehouse as well as the possible impact of federal budget cuts.
“It was important to be ready for anything and we deployed on the offense as much as possible,” Howard said. “It’s the art of trying to figure out between what’s obviously happening and what’s really happening.”
Howard pointed to legislative successes including the unionization of members of the State’s Attorney’s offices, as well as providing support for the teacher’s union, which fought Gov. Phil Scott’s proposal to negotiate health care benefits on the state level.
“What people don’t see in those reports is the grassroots support, our members calling their legislators and emailing them,” he said.
The governor’s proposal on teacher health insurance drew significant legislative attention after it was proposed in April and was the primary reason for the special session in June. The issue was resolved when the governor and legislative leaders agreed on a plan that requires school districts to achieve the savings Scott sought through local negotiations with teachers. The savings must be used to lower property taxes.
Lobbying expenses have generally increased over time. Figures compiled by VTDigger show spending on lobbyists has gone from $3.9 million during the 2011 session to more than $7 million last year. In an effort to accurately reflect what businesses and advocacy groups spent during the session, VTDigger only included compensation for lobbyists. No other expenses, such as advertising, are included.
The Vermont Association of Hospitals and Health Systems spent $105,871, the third highest amount on lobbying.
Jeff Tieman, president and CEO of VAHHS, said his group spent the session focusing on significant health policy, including how to deal with mental health patients waiting in emergency rooms for care and overall Medicaid payments. The Legislature ended up cutting hospitals’ charity care payments by millions of dollars.
“These issues have far-reaching implications for patients, providers and communities,” Tieman said. “As the association representing Vermont’s network of not-for-profit hospitals, we work to be an engaged and constructive voice in the State House. Our work addresses some of the toughest challenges we face as a state and helps to ensure that Vermonters continue to have access to the highest quality care possible.”