A quarter of a billion dollars can still buy you a lot, even in these dusky economic times. Villas and wait staff on every continent. Your own private mercenary army. Partially paying down your student loans.
For 22 years, Frankfort lobbyists have spent nearly a quarter billion dollars in order to influence state legislation, according to an Insider Louisville analysis of over 68,000 lobbying records maintained by the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission. KLEC is a government agency tasked with enforcing all of the rules and regulations governing state lawmakers and lobbyists.
All told, lobbyists in Kentucky spent more than $232 million between 1993, the year KLEC began collecting such information, and April 2015.
For some perspective, that equates to roughly 5 percent of a Nimitz-class aircraft “supercarrier.”
By importing what otherwise would pose as an unwieldy dataset into Google Fusion Tables, we can easily visualize the spending in order to identify nifty-sounding emergent patterns made possible by the sheer volume of records feeding the visualizations. The dataset is delineated along four different perimeters — industry type, the name of lobbying entity, the period in which the lobbying expenditure occurred, and the total amount spent during that period. For brevity’s sake, all expense data has been condensed across various and changing forms of permitted lobbyist expenses (food, trips, etc.) across an ever-changing regulatory landscape into one, neat sum.
Enter the Charts
For starters, here’s what 22 years of lobbying in Frankfort looks like on an à la carte basis — that is, organized by time and total lobbying expenses. One way to think of it might be to consider that you’re looking at a novel form of dining: Instead of placing your order with a server or a cashier, you place your order on a big board for all to see, its coordinates determined by two things: when you paid and how much you paid.
A quick glance at this chart and we can get a good idea of when some lobbying groups go on a binge.
Already, we can see a couple of factors at play regarding how lobbying money flows over time: Long, gentle periods of uniform activity (reflecting an on-average total expenditure of $3,384), punctuated by a burst of spending. The tendency of most groups to report a “common” amount renders outlier “big ticket” expenditures into veritable sore thumbs. We also can see more data points (i.e., more lobbying) the nearer we get to the present, suggesting lobbyists have been spending more money to influence more laws than they ever have, with no real signs of abatement.
Because the chart caps at $100,000, it does not plot even bigger outliers, which lurk out of sight. Those purchases simply do not fit on the map at this scale, and they include a series of 2010 and 2012 expenditures by the Consumer Health Care Products Association totaling over $500,000 that were so onerous they caught the attention of Mother Jones magazine.
The chart below illustrates in greater definition this increased frequency of lobbying in Kentucky, which corresponds to a similar momentum in federal lobbying over a similar time period — for the most part.
Beginning in the spring of 2004, spending began to pick up in earnest with relation to what we might call “modern” levels. Unlike federal lobbying spending, which plateaued in 2010. That’s unbridled spirit.
Fusion Tables also allows us to filter specific groups and interests from a pool of thousands to narrow down unique activity. In order to see what this means, let’s take a look at the following line graph.
Go ahead and drag the slider at the bottom of the graph; it’ll enable you to expand or contract your view of the natural gas lobby’s expenditures over two decades. The jagged blue line represents expenditures made by the natural gas lobby, which includes pipeline proponents, extractors, distribution companies and some utilities that have the fossil fuel as part of their energy portfolio. Take note of the massive expenditures in 2013 and 2014, which look like back-to-back palpitations on a cardiogram (best seen if you expand the view to its fullest). Those sudden jumps represent some of the most expensive Hail Mary passes in state political history (and concurrent logical gymnastics undertaken by state Rep. Jim Gooch, D-Providence) in an effort to use eminent domain to lay explosive pipes across 13 Kentucky counties, including through a 200-year-old convent.
Out of hundreds of lobbyist employers registered with KLEC, the top 25 biggest spenders have shelled out a combined $44 million — a figure just shy of 20 percent of the $232 million spent lobbying Frankfort in the past 22 years. Like their Washingtonian counterparts, the breakdown of these big spenders includes powerful trade groups and large corporations at the top, and grassroots and nonprofits rounding out the bottom tier.
Along those lines, here is a list of the top 25 biggest lobbying groups in Kentucky, ranked by spending levels.
As evidenced above, the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce is by far the biggest player in recorded Kentucky state lobbying history, according to KLEC records.
The Chamber has spent $4.09 million from 1993-2015 to advance a largely pro-big business agenda, which has in recent years grown to encompass traditionally conservative ideas, including public funding of private, for-profit charter schools and enacting right-to-work laws.
The Chamber’s combined expenditure is nearly $1 million more than Kentucky’s second largest lobbyist, tobacco giant Altria, which, along with the conservative pro-tobacco Kentucky Farm Bureau Federation, has lobbied heavily to defeat smoking ban measures that have only begun to emerge in the state House and Senate in the past five years.
If $4 million doesn’t seem like a lot over 22 years, consider that relative to their federal counterparts, the price of accessing the attention of a Kentucky lawmaker is considerably cheaper than the alternative. The investigation into the General Assembly in the early 1990s by a criminal FBI probe concerning undue influence from the trot horse racing industry, a.k.a. BOPTROT, revealed an embarrassing fact about the price of accessing a Kentucky lawmaker: The costs to lobbyists are low. Put another way, a plate of West Kentucky BBQ can have the equivalent effect of dropping tens of thousands of dollars on a single dinner at any of D.C.’s most upscale restaurants but for a fraction of the cost.
In contrast, here are the groups that have spent the least amount lobbying (excluding those that have never spent any money, with a floor threshold of at least $1 in expenditures).
And here, we have a look at the relative influence of industries in the state, weighted by size in accordance with total lobbying amounts.
The pie don’t lie: The most dominant industries in Kentucky in terms of lobbying dollars have been, by far, the health care and health insurance sectors, comprised primarily of for-profit HMOs and to a lesser extent hospitals, many of which are listed in their own category within the larger dataset.
A couple of important caveats about the above pie. Here,”nonprofit” can include everything from conservative anti-abortion groups to the progressive Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, and even well-heeled professional membership organizations like the Kentucky Medical Association. Also, “Chamber of Commerce” in the legend refers not only to the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, but rather an umbrella encompassing other, smaller chambers of commerce around the state, as well.
Before we wrap up, it’s probably a good idea to state an obvious, although not necessarily intuitive, fact: The reason the data exists in the first place is a testament to at least some tangible level of transparency in state government. For what it’s worth, good governance think tank The State Integrity Investigation gave Kentucky (and, by proxy, KLEC) a rating of “B+” in its latest ranking of state lobbyist disclosure laws.
Digging a little deeper in their review, however, and some weaknesses in lobbyist reporting disclosure requirements are red-flagged. Chief among them are slap-on-the-wrist penalties for breach of disclosure laws, and a lack of authority on the part of KLEC to examine the books of any lobbyist’s employer to ensure their expenses are accurate as a matter of course. KLEC can only do so in the event of a formal investigation of a reported discrepancy. And that requires a signed, formal complaint.
During last year’s legislative session, Altria and the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce led a banner year for lobbying in the General Assembly, which saw a record $18 million in expenditures for the odd-year January session — think of it as an “off season” in a sense that the state budget was not up for grabs, like a bowl ring, and the best paid players wear leather shoes in lieu of cleats. Despite record-breaking lobbying sums in the past several years, however, fines levied by KLEC against lobbyists and their employers only average a few thousand dollars annually.
The unceasing rise in lobbying in Kentucky, seen in the longview, reflects a strengthening of entrenched interests across a relatively narrow band of industries, if you believe that such spending influences policy. Strangely enough, there’s not a lot of empirical academic research to suggest either way; more often than not, extant studies suggest that at least on a federal level the net outcome of lobbying as a force maintains a kind of muddled status quo. With a quarter of all the money spent lobbying Frankfort since 1993 ($58 million) doled out since 2009, and most of that figure spent by employers who were already spending the most anyway, the price of political access in Kentucky is only as expensive as they make it.