April 29, 2013

Trash policy a key focus of lobbyists in Augusta

During the current legislative session, close to $110,000 has already been spent on waste management proposals.

By Steve Mistler smistler@pressherald.com
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA - There's a lot of money in the trash business.

Just ask the Maine Legislature. 

For the past three months, the media spotlight has been trained on several hot-button topics, including the state's next two-year budget, Medicaid expansion and using a renegotiated state liquor contract to repay Maine's hospital debt. Lobbyists have flocked to those issues, but the most costly advocacy efforts by a handful of interest groups have focused on trash, specifically where it comes from, where it goes and how it's disposed of.

A review of state lobbying compensation reports from January to March showed that close to $110,000 has been spent on two waste management proposals, one of which has yet to become an official bill. 

The $110,000 is neither the total amount spent on solid waste advocacy nor is it a large percentage of the $1.67 million spent on lobbying since January. However, it represents one of the most intensely lobbied topics of the 126th Legislature. 

Other lobbied issues include more than $60,000 spent on the state's next two-year budget and over $40,000 by groups vying for a new state liquor contract. 

The biggest spenders so far include USA Energy Group LLC ($96,717) on solid waste and waste-to-energy proposals; the American Suntanning Association, which spent $30,000 over two months to defeat a bill that would have prohibited minors from using tanning beds; Pew Charitable Trusts, which spent more than $21,000 on oral health care legislation; Casella Waste Systems, which spent nearly $19,000 on solid waste legislation; and the Maine Association of Substance Abuse Programs, which spent nearly $18,000, mostly to fight proposals that could reduce funding for substance abuse. 

With three full months of lobbying reports in, the advocacy activity in the Democratic-led Legislature is close to the spending pace spent the previous two years when Republicans held the majority. Lobbyists spent more than $7.5 million over the two sessions of the 125th Legislature.

During the previous session a number of interest groups attempted to influence policymaking. The Maine Association of Substance Abuse Programs ($193,637), Altria Client Services ($156,808), a subsidiary of tobacco giant Philip Morris USA, and Central Maine Power ($134,157)  spent the most among organizations lobbying at the State House during 2011 and 2012.

Trailing those groups were the Maine County Commissioners Association ($106,508), the Maine Association of Realtors ($96,625), Regional School Unit 20 ($94,722) and the Natural Resources Council of Maine ($90,032).

A similarly diverse set of interest groups have gone to work at the State House this session, sending approximately 180 registered lobbyists to the State House to influence the decisions of 186 lawmakers and Gov. Paul LePage. 

Maine is one of five states where the ratio of lobbyists to legislators is 1-to-1, according to a 2011 analysis by the Center for Public Integrity.

In states such as California and Texas, the ratio is approximately 10-to-1. New York is 24-to-1.

The more than $60,000 spent lobbying lawmakers on the budget is likely to increase as the Legislature continues unpacking and reworking LePage's $6.3 billion two-year proposal.

The lobbying already spent on the budget is also much higher than $60,000 shown in one three-month report. It's impossible to calculate the exact amount because Maine disclosure laws only require groups to report total lobbyist compensation. Activity on a specific bill, such as the budget, is only reported when an organization spends more than $1,000 in one month on one bill. 

Additionally, various disclosure requirements among states make it difficult to compare Maine lobbyist spending to that in other states. 

The most recent comprehensive survey was in 2006 by the Center for Public Integrity. It concluded that there were 40,000 lobbyists -- some not required to register -- at state legislatures. The study also noted that lobbying was a $1 billion a year industry and growing.

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