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Dear reader,

Yesterday’s newsletter began with a presentation of two caricatures of lobbyists and a question: on a scale that starts with friendly neighborhood subject matter experts, and goes to cigar-sucking, yacht denizens, where do lobbyists actually fall?

The answer is a bit of both. Yesterday we talked about what lobbyists do at the Capitol all day, which looks a lot more like the former. Lobbyists’ subject-specific expertise is incredibly important, and helps guide lawmakers decisions on bills. But today we’ll talk about another reason legislators listen to those lobbyists, and that’s all about money.

Aside from their issue-specific expertise, a good lobbyist is a good mobilizer, like Seth DiStefano, the lobbyist at the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy said. 

But sometimes, mobilizing looks a lot more like, well, having lots of money. A major tool in a lobbyist’s war chest is called “astroturfing.”

The state Ethics Commission, and lobbyists themselves, call it “grassroots lobbying,” or spending a bunch of money on ads, events, and mailers to build what appears to be grassroots support for a given cause and put pressure on representatives. (This is not to say that lobbyists can’t also engage in, or aid, earnest grassroots efforts, but the amount of money spent on a campaign can be a good indicator of the difference.)

Remember Jason Huffman, The Americans For Prosperity lobbyist who shows up at the Capitol the moment the doors open? When Huffman is not at the Capitol during the session, he is often at his office, drafting, approving and placing ad campaigns for issues that are important to their group. The hope is to mobilize support from citizens to pressure lawmakers. 


Some employers of lobbyists are willing to drop massive amounts of money to influence voters’ decisions in elections more directly. Americans For Prosperity is one of the strongest examples of this, if a unique one, because of the sheer money-power of the greater Koch network of nonprofits and corporate donors. While it may go unspoken, to side against them can result in an onslaught of political spending, while cozying up to them reaps benefits. This year, Americans for Prosperity spent more money on independent expenditures than any group in West Virginia, totaling over $1.3 million.

The group also does “grassroots lobbying” on issues that are important to them. During the 2022 election, for example, Huffman estimates the group knocked on 65,000 doors across the state to advocate for constitutional amendments that voters were preparing to decide on. Ultimately, however, those all failed. The cost of that campaign, however, is unknown at this point. Grassroots lobbying reports filed with the Ethics Commission that would cover the weeks leading up to the election aren’t due until mid-January.


While lobbyists, and those that hire them, are subject to the same campaign contributions as the rest of us ($5,600 max to a candidate, $2,800 in a primary and $2,800 in a general election, and $10,000 max to a Political Action Committee, again with half in the primary and half in the general), they can put a theoretically infinite amount of money towards something called “independent spending.” What does this look like? Imagine me winking while I say this: “I’m not giving more than $2,800 to your campaign. I’m spending $2.8 million on my own in support of your campaign.”


The only real rule with independent spending is that the spenders aren’t allowed to “coordinate” with the candidates themselves. (Please, enjoy this 2012 segment from The Daily Show that is maybe the best explainer I’ve ever seen. They’re talking about federal law, but the same principles apply.) 
Photo by WV Legislative Photography.

Does money = votes?


Such spending isn’t necessarily indicative of buying votes, however.


“I think there’s a level where people look at the process and they think [politicians] are for sale,” said Julie Archer, the coordinator with West Virginians for Clean Elections. “I think a big part of it is putting money in on the front end to get people elected who support your agenda, or agree with your ideology or whatever, and then continuing to invest money.”

But spending big dollars is not a guaranteed path to victory. While Huffman’s group spent the most money on independent expenditures this cycle, a dark money group called Mountain State Values was second. That group propped up Democratic candidates through campaign contributions and outside spending, spending just over $1 million in 2022. Still, Democrats were trounced on Election Day, leaving only three of their party’s members in the Senate and 12 in the House of Delegates.

(We’re calling Mountain State Values a “dark money” group because most of their money was funneled through other PACs and nonprofits associated with unions and labor causes, letting us know their ideological underpinnings, but obscuring information about the donors themselves.)


Other times, politicians listen to lobbyists because of who they represent. The coal industry, for instance, carries a lot of weight in West Virginia. Once upon a time, that influence was easily explainable: any regulation that impacted coal affected an enormous number of well-paying jobs in the state. But now, despite the industry’s economic death spiral, its place in the state’s narrative and coal’s hard-won connections in the statehouse keep the industry close to the ear of many lawmakers.

And then there’s the ACLU approach: “I think [lawmakers] recognize the ACLU is an organization that, if they pass the wrong thing, will sue the state, will cost the state money, embarrass the state and may invalidate these laws in the first place,” said Eli Baumwell, their policy director.

(Neither the West Virginia chapter of the ACLU nor Baumwell make campaign contributions or participate in outside spending, and his lobbying reports list no non-monetary gifts to legislators.)


But where there’s a stick (like lawsuits or backing a politician’s opponent), there’s also a carrot. Some lobbyists also drop big money on lawmakers to build relationships and curry favor. That can mean hosting events like dinners or golf outings, which a lobbyist is free to pay for as long as they report it. (You can check out a great 2019 story by Mountain State Spotlight co-founder  Ken Ward Jr., about lobbyist spending at Gov. Jim Justice’s resort, The Greenbrier.)


You can categorize the three types of political spending we’ve discussed this way too. 


“If an organization has kind of a three-pronged approach with political activity — campaign contributions, independent spending and lobbying — the most common of the two is campaign contributions and lobbying,” said Pete Quist, the deputy research director at the money in politics-tracking nonprofit OpenSecrets. While direct contributions and lobbying are often used to buy access, independent expenditures are more typically used in an attempt to flip seats, or party control.


According to Quist, you see it most often in tight races, and even more often when one party doesn’t have such dominant control of the Statehouse, like the Republicans do in West Virginia.


(The limits of) Understanding influence

Any citizen interested in a specific piece of legislation can check out the most recent list of registered lobbyists in the state, see who they represent, and check out their lobbying reports to get an idea of what issues they’ve been working on, and how or whether they’ve been spending money on lawmakers. (But in reality, these reports are sometimes incomplete and enforcement is lacking.)

And the secretary of state’s campaign finance website has records on campaign contributions and independent spending, which can tell you whether a lobbyist or their employer has been spending political money that way.


There’s also, which is run by the nonprofit OpenSecrets and collects state-level campaign finance data from all 50 states and presents it in a more searchable form. You can even ask specific questions like how employees of a particular company or industry have been donating individually.


But for those interested in digging, political spending disclosures in West Virginia have limitations, some unique and some not.


While you can see what lobbyists spend on lawmakers, West Virginia is one of only a few states where you can’t see what lobbyists are earning from their clients. 


“It’s difficult to see what is being spent on lobbying, and by whom,” Quist, the FollowTheMoney researcher, said. “It’s important to the public to understand how much money an organization is spending on lobbying the public’s elected officials, and that compensation piece is the vast majority of what’s spent.”


And then there’s dark money. Because of charity laws that protect donors, it can be nearly impossible to know whether industry leaders who hire lobbyists to influence politicians are also anonymously donating to nonprofits that are spending money to influence elections.

Fun fact: yet another policy that both the ACLU and Americans for Prosperity agree on is the rights of donors to remain anonymous. There is a long history of anonymous donation to politically-tinged nonprofits, the legality of which was affirmed in a civil rights-era Supreme Court case which denied the state of Alabama access to the NAACP’s donor list. Advocates for anonymous donations often cite donor security concerns, which was at the heart of the NAACP lawsuit, but critics contend that reasoning is a flimsy shield in the post-Citizens United era.


With great power…


Even with enormous power, lobbyists don’t always get their way.


Last session the West Virginia Coal Association fought Sen. President Blair on one of his signature bills — creating a state-supported company to issue mine reclamation insurance bonds to coal companies that private insurers increasingly considered too risky. It wasn’t that the Coal Association didn’t like the policy. What they wanted to change was the bill’s language singling out their industry and making it look like they were getting a handout. While some language was hedged, the bill ultimately passed singling out mining companies. The Coal Association, having their bluff called, supported it.


Lobbyists offer lawmakers crucial expertise and… you know, money and nice things. Some use one more effectively or aggressively than the other, and they all have an agenda, whether they’re paid six figures for their time or represent an earnest grassroots organization. But, essentially, their job is to move the legislative agenda towards their priorities. Tomorrow, we’ll talk about how lawmakers actually set that agenda.


Thanks for reading!


Ian Karbal

State Government Watchdog Reporter

Copyright © 2023 Mountain State Spotlight, All rights reserved.

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