The candy that Assistant Senate Majority Leader Andre Cushing handed out at an Independence Day parade last year was partly paid for by lobbying firms Preti Flaherty and Pierce Atwood. Over the course of the past year and a half, companies like Pfizer, Cianbro and K12 Inc. helped underwrite the Newport Republican’s travel expenses to Savannah, Houston, Dallas, Scottsdale, Washington D.C., Boston and other cities to attend meetings of the American Legislative Exchange Council, the National Governors Association and other entities.

Similarly, when House Speaker Mark Eves, D-North Berwick, traveled to Utah for a January meeting of legislators hosted by the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the $3,157 in trip costs were covered by cash donations from companies like Wal-Mart, Anthem, Bangor’s Hollywood Casino, and Churchill Downs, the Kentucky company that owns Oxford Casino.

From the lunches they have with staffers to the contributions they give their colleagues’ re-election campaigns, Maine’s present and aspiring legislative leaders often rely on piles of cash from lobbyists, corporations and individuals donated to their respective leadership political action committees. These PAC funds – which can essentially be used for almost anything – empower legislators to attend out-of-state meetings, do favors for political allies or favored causes and charities, pay for presents to give visitors and colleagues.

All of it is perfectly legal, part of the routine power brokering of legislative politics at both the state and federal levels, especially as corporations are not allowed to donate more than $375 to campaigns directly, and not at all to Clean Elections candidates.

“Generally donors who give to leadership PACs are looking for access to legislative leaders,” says Anthony Corrado of Colby College and the Brookings Institution, a national authority on money in politics. “They’re hoping to have their voices heard when their matters come before the legislators, and therefore they tend to give on both sides of the aisle, but favoring the majority party.”

A Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram analysis of all donations to the personal leadership PACs of Maine legislators between Jan. 1, 2015, and May 31, 2016, revealed that the 15 biggest donors are all business associations, large companies, corporations, or lobbying firms, with the Maine Association of Realtors leading the field with nearly $25,000 in contributions during the period.

The analysis – based on official filings with the state ethics commission – also showed that almost all these major donors contribute to PACs from both parties simultaneously, usually with an emphasis on those of top legislative leaders like Eves, Cushing, Senate President Mike Thibodeau, R-Winterport, Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason, R- Lisbon Falls, Senate Minority Leader Justin Alfond, D-Portland, and House Minority Leader Ken Fredette R-Newport.

The PAC funds serve as political currency for lawmakers to use to help colleagues’ campaigns, fund party operations, or to buy gifts or meals for constituents. “It helps them build political support within the Legislature, which can be important to achieving and keeping leadership positions or important spots on committees,” says Corrado.

Michael Franz, a political scientist at Bowdoin College, agrees. “Contributions help ingratiate oneself with fellow partisans, which can facilitate efforts to become a party leader,” he says.

Funds for leadership PACs are often solicited at fundraising events convened by the legislators themselves. On May 17, for instance, Sen. Mason and Rep. Jeffrey Timberlake, R-Turner held a joint event for their respective PACs at the Ricker Hill Orchards Tasting Room in Turner.

The event grossed over $8,000 for Mason’s Charting Maine’s Future PAC from lobbyists, the Maine banking and credit union industry associations, and other entities. Timberlake’s Still Fed Up With Taxes PAC paid the $122 bar tab but collected $2,325 in donations.

Late last summer, Alfond paid over $7,700 out of his own pocket to bus 30 donors to the Bleacher Bar annex inside Fenway Park to see the Boston Red Sox play the Baltimore Orioles – and write checks for his ABCD PAC. Just weeks before, he shelled out over $9,300 to host an annual fundraising tournament at the Belgrade Lakes Golf Club. The events generated about $60,000 in contributions from dozens of entities, including PhRMA, Unitil, the Maine Bankers Association, AstraZeneca, and Portland developer Cyrus Hagge.

“For both events, I pay for the costs personally so I can assure donors that every penny they contribute goes directly to helping elect Senate Democrats across the state,” Alfond explained via email.

TOP CONTRIBUTORS

Here are the 15 biggest contributors to the personal PACs of lawmakers during the period:

1. Maine Association of Realtors – $24,750. Biggest recipients: Sen. Andre Cushing ($4,000); Sen. Dawn Hill, D-Cape Neddick; Sen. Roger Katz, R-Augusta; Senate President Mike Thibodeau, ($3,000 each); House Speaker Mark Eves; Rep. Sarah Gideon, D-Freeport; Rep. Matt Pouliot, R-Augusta ($2,500 each). Interests: lobbied on a variety of bills over the past year and a half that affect development, with the largest expenditures on a bill that clarified how large developments handle stormwater management when they expand.

2. Maine Beer and Wine Wholesalers – $23,900. Biggest recipients: Rep. Fredette ($3,600); Cushing and Thibodeau ($2,400 each); Hill ($1,500); Alfond, Sen. Brakey, Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth ($1,250 each). Interests: lobbied on dozens of bills affecting alcohol sales at golf courses, bottle recycling, the auctioning of wine by nonprofits, and tax reform.

3. Maine Credit Union League – $19,500. Biggest recipients: Fredette ($4,500); Mason ($2,000); Thibodeau and Alfond ($1,500 each). Interests: lobbied on a wide range of bills affecting the industry, with the largest expenditures in this Legislature focused on a tax lien reform bill that might have aversely affected the ability of banks and credit unions to collect mortgage debts.

4. Maine Bankers Association – $14,750. Biggest recipients: Thibodeau ($3,000); Fredette ($2,000); Alfond and Mason ($1,500 each.) Interests: lobbied on bills affecting foreclosures, cybersecurity, chip and pin technology, and the state budget.

5. AstraZeneca, London-based drug company – $14,500. Biggest recipients: Cushing ($7,500); Fredette and Thibodeau ($1,500 each); Eves ($750). Interests: opposed a bill to prevent bad-faith assertions of patent infringement; promoted bills to allow for safe prescription drug disposal; discussed a legal case regarding the importation of drugs from foreign countries with Gov. Paul LePage and how state budget proposals might affect Medicaid drug benefits.

6. Pierce Atwood, Portland lobbying firm – $13,200. Biggest recipients: Thibodeau ($2,000); Alfond and Cushing ($1,500 each); Katz and Eves ($1,000 each). Interests: firm lobbied for a wide range of major corporate clients and industry associations, including the Maine Association of Realtors.

7. Cianbro, construction company – $12,575. Biggest recipients: Thibodeau ($2,750); Fredette ($2,250); Cushing ($2,000). Interests: lobbied on bills ranging from highway safety to contract indemnification as well as the governor’s nominees to the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

8. Anthem – $12,250. Biggest recipients: Thibodeau and Fredette ($2,500 each); Alfond ($1,750); Hill and Rep. Deborah Sanderson, R-Chelsea ($1,250 each); Pouliot ($1,000). Interests: lobbying issues included health care regulations and health insurance issues.

9. Jim Mitchell and the Mitchell/Tardy lobbying firm – $11,625. Biggest recipients: Thibodeau ($1,500); Alfond, Hill, and Cushing ($1,000 each); Rep. Barry Hobbins, D-Saco ($750). Interests: represented a wide range of business interests, including Anthem and the Maine Dental Association.

10. Churchill Downs, owners of Oxford Casino – $11,570. Biggest recipients: Hill ($2,000); Thibodeau, Alfond, and Mason ($1,500 each); Eves, Cushing; Rep. Jeffrey Timberlake, R-Turner; Sen. Nate Libby, D-Lewiston; Rep. Nate Wadsworth, R-Hiram ($1,000 each). Interests: lobbied on harness racing, gaming, keno, and tip wage bills. (In June, Rep. Wadsworth’s PAC held a fundraiser at the Oxford Casino.)

11. Bernstein Shur, Portland-based lobbying firm – $11,225. Biggest recipients: Thibodeau ($2,000); Gideon ($1,500); Alfond ($1,100); Mason ($1,000); Hill and Libby ($750 each). Interests: lobbying clients include a national gun control group, FairPoint, and the Maine Renewable Energy Association.

12. Serlin-Haley, Boston-based lobbyists – $11,000. Biggest recipients: Cushing ($4,000); Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton ($2,500); Thibodeau and Mason ($1,500 each). Interests: lobbied for the Toy Industry Association and lawn treatment company Trugeen of Tennessee, both of which oppose stricter chemical safety legislation. TIA paid the firm over $27,000 in 2015 to lobby on a single Maine bill affecting toxic chemicals in children’s products, L.D. 948.

13. Spectra Energy of Houston – $9,750. Biggest recipients: Thibodeau, Alfond, Hill, and Cushing ($1,000 each). Interests: proposed expansion of the Algonquin Gas Transmission project; also owns the Maritimes and Northeast natural gas pipeline that runs through Maine from Nova Scotia.

14. Maine Dental Association and its PAC – $9,700. Biggest recipients: Thibodeau, Cushing and Alfond ($1,500 each); Hill ($1,000). Interests: lobbied on range of bills affecting oral health and fluoridation.

15. Hollywood Casino, Bangor – $9,500. Biggest recipients: Alfond and Thibodeau ($1,500); Cushing, Hill and Mason ($1,000 each). Interests: Opposed additional competing casinos.

 

Correction: This story was updated twice on July 10, 2016: At 9:44 a.m. to correct the name of the representative who held a joint fundraising event with Senate Majority Leader Garrett Mason on May 17, 2016; and at 2:56 p.m. to clarify the amount of money, and to whom, that corporations are allowed to donate.