By Melissa Daniels | PA Independent
HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania may have trimmed some pork, but it still leads the nation in federal lobbying spending.
Records show that Pennsylvania spends a fraction of what it used to on lobbying Washington, D.C., lawmakers and federal agencies, reflecting a change in earmark culture in D.C. and the state’s own fiscal restraint.
Data from the Center for Responsive Politics, a research organization that tracks money in politics, shows Pennsylvania government and associated agencies spent $320,000 on federal lobbying so far this year.
The figure includes $120,000 in taxpayer dollars from the commonwealth itself, and an additional $200,000 spent by the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency.
These figures are a sharp departure from state and agency spending under the Rendell administration, which spent $1.98 million in 2008 and $1.48 million each in 2009 and 2010 . In those days, the state contracted with multiple lobbying firms — and it was the top spender out of all 50 states.
The Corbett administration saw lobbying on behalf of the state government and its subsidiary agencies as an area of cost savings, as it trimmed the budget, said Kelli Roberts, the administration’s deputy director of communications.
The Governor’s Office funds lobbying. This year, the total contract for lobbying is $240,000, half of which is expended so far, Roberts said. The Rendell administration spent as much as $1 million on lobbying contracts each year from 2006 through 2010.
“The need for those sorts of lobbying efforts (isn’t) necessarily what (it) used to be,” Roberts said.
Lobbying had helped states secure earmarks for pet projects, like construction spending, but congressional delegates have temporarily suspended the practice.
Still, keeping “a small presence” in D.C. is helpful from a policy standpoint, Roberts said.
Leslie Gromis-Baker, president of the lobbying firm LG Strategies, is the commonwealth’s sole lobbyist. In an interview with PA Independent, she said the decrease in funding is a twofold decision between the state reigning in spending and the amount of earmarks the federal government is distributing.
“Those dollars just aren’t there anymore. There aren’t any earmarks. There isn’t any discretionary spending,” she said.
Baker was a member of Gov. Tom Corbett’s transition team before she was contracted for lobbying. Previous experience working in D.C. and familiarity with the state’s delegates primed her for the job, she said.
The state does not maintain an office presence in D.C.
Without earmarks to fight for, or projects to bring home, her role is largely policy oriented. That could be briefing the state on legislative developments, she said, noting the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act as one example. And it’s explaining to legislators how proposals could affect Pennsylvania, she said.
Baker’s contract is contingent upon retaining no clients other than the commonwealth. The contract is $240,000 for the year, which covers all lobbying-related expenses, including travel and lodging.
Baker also worked on campaigns for Gov. Tom Ridge and the presidential campaign of George W. Bush in 2000.
Shelia Krumholz, executive director at the Center for Responsive Politics, said taxpayers may be surprised to learn that states and municipalities send lobbyists to D.C. at all. But the practice can act as an insurance policy, sending in professionals with a pitch to ensure the state’s point is getting through.
“State and local governments, just like any corporation, union or trade association, feel that if they get in the door they need to make the most powerful case possible,” she said.
But across the nation, states are spending less to lobby federal lawmakers. Thirty-two out of 48 states do not have any reported lobbying expenses for this year. In 2008, that figure was 16.
Brian Darling, senior fellow for government studies at conservative think tank Heritage Foundation, said states struggle to see the same results from lobbying that they experienced through the early 2000s.
Today, “earmark” is a borderline dirty word, with a temporary ban on the practice.
“The politics of earmarking have changed dramatically, where you got to the point to have a House and Senate saying, ‘We’re not going to have earmarks,’” Darling said. “(Lobbyists) can be very effective in getting money to the state, but if you can’t point to a specific bridge or project or earmark, it’s very hard to prove your worth to the state.”
PHEAA, which provides student loan servicing, pays for lobbying expenses out of its own profits, said spokesman Mike Reiber. The agency has a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., and also operates a contract with the lobbying firm, American Continental Group.
Other state agencies chose to lobby in the past, including the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission and the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, but these agencies no longer do so, according to federal disclosure reports.
The Office of the Attorney General approves lobbying contracts for PHEAA, Reiber said.
Reiber said the agency funds lobbying efforts because it helps gather information about pending legislation that could affect its operation, like the decision to eliminate third-party banks and credit unions from offering federal student loans.
“It was important for us, as the negotiations were going on, to find out exactly what they were talking about,” he said.