If lobbying correlates with influence, then the Maine Association of Substance Abuse Programs should have had its way with the 125th Legislature.

The nonprofit group spent more than $193,637 on lobbying activities at the State House from January 2011 to May 2012, more than any other group attempting to influence lawmakers or the governor’s office, according to an analysis of lobbying data from the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices.

Considering some of the policies enacted by the 125th Legislature – including the slashing of state reimbursement rates for methadone clinics, which substance abuse groups fiercely opposed – such spending raises the question: Is lobbying the Legislature worth it?

Answer: Sometimes.

A review of data and policies enacted by the Legislature at times supports conventional wisdom that lobbying can shape policy. In some other instances, however, low advocacy spending belied the true power that some groups wield in Augusta.

Interest groups spent $7.5 million lobbying policymakers during the last legislative session. It’s unclear how Maine compares nationally due to varying disclosure requirements in other states.

Maine lobbyists self-report their expenditures and there are provisions that allow lobbyists to advocate for – and sometimes write – legislation without registering with the ethics commission.

Nonetheless, Maine’s requirements are stronger than those in other states, according to Denise Roth Barber, managing director of the National Institute of State Money in Politics, a nonpartisan organization based in Montana. Barber said access to Maine lobbying information was better than in some states.

“There’s really a black hole with regards to a national understanding of lobbying at the state level,” Barber said.

Ninety-six percent of the lobbying total was directed toward the legislative branch. Advocacy efforts took different forms, from meeting lawmakers in State House hallways to testifying before legislative committees. Events, such as off-site luncheons or banquets, are recorded differently.

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.

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).

That a group dedicated to helping drug addicts topped the list may seem surprising, but it appears the Maine Association of Substance Abuse Programs can afford it.

MASAP’s most recent annual financial disclosure with the Internal Revenue Service shows more than $1 million in revenue, including $910,000 from government grants.

It’s also possible the organization couldn’t afford not to consider the impact of budget cuts on drug treatment programs, methadone reimbursement and the enactment of tougher penalties on bath salts – issues on which the group intensely lobbied during the legislative session.

Altria successfully lobbied against bills that would have raised the state cigarette tax and another that would have outlawed the sale of certain tobacco products.

RSU 20, which includes Belfast and eight small towns, also stands out.

Robert Nadeau, the principal lobbyist for RSU 20, said the district was among a consortium of 20 to 25 school units that lobbied for passage of L.D. 1003. The bill was designed to re-evaluate steep cuts to Medicaid reimbursement rates for school districts with special education students.

Nadeau said the cuts had cost districts about $30 million this year. RSU 20, Nadeau said, was among the hardest hit, so it shared the lobbying costs with Portland and other districts affected by the reductions.

The advocacy effort had mixed results. On one hand, lawmakers instructed the state to ensure that districts received their entitled funding. On the other, the measure was a resolve, which means it doesn’t have the teeth of an appropriation law.

It’s difficult to calculate the amount of money lobbyists spend on a bill. Disclosure law requires lobbyists to reveal expenditures for specific legislation only if they spend more than $1,000 in one month while working for one organization.

The Ethics Commission generates a separate report for such spending. Neither the Maine County Commissioners Association nor the Natural Resources Council of Maine is in it, despite their high positions on the expenditure list.

Monthly reports show that the commissioners association targeted dozens of bills, including a contentious proposal that gave the counties greater representation on the panel that oversees development in Maine’s unorganized territories.

The commissioners association spent more than any other group to lobby lawmakers, and was fourth in spending to sway the governor’s office. The effort included $9,509 to lobby Gov. Paul LePage to nominate county officials to seats on the State Board of Corrections.

The Maine Association of Realtors was fifth on the overall spending list. Many of its efforts were successful, including a $6,000 push in March for a bill that changed how landowners can classify their property as farmland, a designation that can lower a landowner’s property tax rate.

The group also spent $4,000 lobbying for a failed and contentious “takings” bill that would have forced the state to reimburse landowners if a certain percentage of their property value was reduced by a state regulation.

The initiative was defeated amid lobbying efforts by the Natural Resources Council of Maine, whose lobbyists were active on many legislative fronts. The activity reflects the group’s opposition to a host of initiatives proposed by LePage and the Republican majority.

The takings bill is an example of how the compensation report doesn’t capture all advocacy efforts in Augusta. Catherine Connors, a Pierce Atwood attorney specializing in takings law, drafted the bill, and could have conceivably benefited from its passage. However, Connors was exempted from the disclosure requirements because she was appointed to the legislative task force that drafted the bill.

The Maine Health Care Association, a nonprofit group representing nursing homes and elder care facilities, was among the top 10 spenders. The organization targeted several bills, including one that lowered the project-cost threshold that requires care providers to obtain a state license before building or expanding a facility.

The Industrial Energy Consumer Group, a nonprofit organization representing high energy users like Verso Paper, had legislative victories to show for its spending.

The group spent $5,046 in one month lobbying against LePage’s bill to remove the 100-megawatt cap from power generators to count toward the state’s renewable energy portfolio standard. The bill was defeated.

The energy group also spent $4,937 in one month last year attempting to block LePage’s bill to eliminate the state mandate that Maine power companies increase the amount of electricity derived from renewable resources. The proposal was ultimately rejected by lawmakers amid similarly intense lobbying efforts by wind power advocates.

Central Maine Power, third on the lobbying list, supported LePage’s plan.

Organizations typically associated with shaping policy spent relatively low amounts on lobbying compared to their influence among lawmakers.

Progressive groups like Maine Equal Justice Partners ($49,191) and the Maine Center for Economic Policy ($10,090) have played important roles in Democratic policymaking, yet the groups showed modest advocacy spending.

Donald Sussman has previously donated to both progressive groups. Sussman is a contributor to Democratic and charitable causes and the majority share owner of MaineToday Media, which owns The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram, the Kennebec Journal in Augusta, the Morning Sentinel in Waterville and other media outlets in Maine.

Similarly, the conservative group the Maine Heritage Policy Center spent $11,610. The think tank, which has played a significant role in tax, budgetary and insurance legislation since emerging as the leading voice for Maine conservatism, spent most of its resources last year helping LePage draft the state’s two-year budget. The group’s other trademark initiative was L.D. 1333, the contentious bill that overhauled and repealed many of Maine’s health insurance laws.

The think tank, like other organizations, also conducted some of its advocacy outside of the State House.

Advocacy events, such as luncheons, parties or dinners, are more popular with some groups than others. Some groups spent very little on lobbying activity within the State House, but more on outside events. The Ethics Commission was unable to provide complete event spending figures.

The Maine Press Association spent $3,675 on lobbying, while the Maine Association of Broadcasters spent $23,530. MaineToday Media is a member of the Maine Press Association.

This story has been corrected to remove event spending figures. The numbers provided to the Press Herald by the Maine Ethics Commission were incorrect.

State House Writer Steve Mistler can be contacted at 791-6345 or at: [email protected]

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