Thursday, March 27, 2008

Buying NH

Lobbyists at the NH State House wear orange badges that identify them as lobbyists. In 2007, there were 252 registered lobbyists. I was surprised at the last hearing I attended to see how many of them were in the room. It was a hearing on water issues, and there were as many lobbyists present as there were citizens. It wasn’t always this way – one might see a lobbyist in a hearing. Now they are everywhere.  

Lobbying is big business in NH these days. According to Nashua Telegraph writer Kevin Landrigan, lobbyists in NH earned $9.6 million in fees last year – a substantial increase over 2006, wherein they netted only $5.4 million. This information isn’t easy to come by. Lobbyists find the NH laws on reporting cumbersome. The extent of disclosure is weak, and NH does poorly on gathering data. We are one of 10 states that do not report which industries spend the most on lobbying. To get information, one must dig through the vast number of monthly reports filed at the Secretary of State’s office.

Big legislative battles last year undoubtedly account for the heavy increase in lobbying fees. There was legislation requiring health care coverage for dependants up to age 26, and covering divorced spouses for a period of time. That brought the health care lobbyists out in full force, with over $1.3 million spent on lobbying. Legislation aimed at limiting the amount of interest charged by payday loan companies brought out the sharks. NH currently has no limits on the amount of interest these companies can charge, and the average seems to be somewhere around 500 percent interest.

A bill to actually weaken NH lobbying laws has already passed the House, and is currently in the Senate. HB 91 would eliminate the requirement currently in place that lobbyists must disclose campaign contributions. Based on how much lobbying money goes into senate campaigns, it seems likely to pass.

NH State Senator Bob Clegg, who is running for Congress in CD 2, is the lobbyist’s best friend. He received over $5000 from lobbyists. Lou D’Allesandro and Betsy DeVries weren’t far behind. Our local senators didn’t rake in the same kind of big dollars, though it’s interesting to peruse those reports and find out where their money does come from. The Secretary of State’s office has this information online. It is fascinating. Senator Joe Kenney received $1,250 in easily identified lobbying contributions – and by that I mean the big lobbying firms in NH. Sheehan, Phinney Capital Group, Dupont Group, Orr and Reno, Devine, Millimet, and Branch, and The Demers Group are names that came up for either or both Senator Gallus and Senator Kenney.

Even more fascinating are the PACs and other special interests. RJ Reynolds, and Glaxo Smith Kline made donations to both Gallus and Kenney. Gallus also received a $200 contribution from New England Payday Loans in 2006. Phillip Morris is supporting Senator Gallus with a $500 contribution in 2007. The lobbyists are already starting to write checks to Gallus in 2007. Senator Kenney’s reporting isn’t as clear – he had no 2006 reports filed under his name. The Friends of Joe Kenney PAC took in a lot of mostly PAC and other special interest money – about $25,000 for the campaign season, and spent it all. In 2007 there are no reports filed for Senator Kenney. Senator Gallus’s reports are clearer. He received many small individual contributions, and he also received a lot of special interest money. Merck, Verizon, Wal-Mart, Pfizer, PhRMA (the pharmaceutical industry’s biggest PAC), and the St. Lawrence and Atlantic Railroad of Quebec are some of the special interest donors. Senator Gallus received almost $34,000 in contributions in 2006. He didn’t spend much of it, as $26, 515.87 was brought forward from the 2006 campaign and rolled over for 2008. In 2008 he already has over $33,000 for his campaign.

One could spend hours looking into this, and we all should. The lobbyists claim that it’s just “good business,” “it’s about being able to be heard.” Most of us can’t afford to purchase those kinds of hearing aids. Our votes still count, and we all still have the right to call our legislators and do our own personal lobbying on our own concerns. We’re all aware of the influence of money on politics on the national level – and now we’re seeing the same sort of trickle down economics at work, in the NH legislature.

Weakening the current lobbying laws so that lobbyists don’t have to report campaign contributions will just make it harder to track those contributions. Those who wish to track will have to go to the reports of each and every legislator. Without lobbying reports to keep them honest an unscrupulous legislator may see this as an opportunity for their own personal corn roast. Having both lobbyists and legislators disclose these contributions is a system of checks and balances that are in the best interests of the voters of our state. The reporting system should be going toward creating greater transparency, not creating more secrecy.

The only way we will ever get away from the pervasive money influence is to initiate public funding of campaigns. When money is taken out of the equation, then we’ll be closer to government for the people and not for the special interests.

I urge folks to call their Senators, and tell them you’re opposed to HB 91. Tell them you think lobbyists should have to disclose all campaign contributions, and for that matter, so should senators.

“The 20th century has been characterized by three developments of great political importance: The growth of democracy, the growth of corporate power, and the growth of corporate propaganda as a means of protecting the corporate power against democracy.” Alex Carey

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