AUGUSTA — Despite COVID-19 precautions that limited access to lawmakers, the lobbyists working the Maine State House still reeled in more than $4 million in 2021 – a total that covers only six of the seven months the Legislature was in session.

The companies and industry sectors pouring the most money on the lawmaking process included regular players and those with the highest-profile issues on the line. Political action committees also got in on the act of paying lobbyists to influence lawmakers and the legislation they supported or opposed.

Prescription drug makers, cable companies, electric utilities, hospitals and casinos were among those spending the most on lobbyists. Advocates against youth smoking and the chemical industry rounded out the top 10 spenders.

The final numbers for what the lobby earned for the 2021 lawmaking session will be released Tuesday, but the sum, so far, is on par for what is typically paid out to influence legislation in a non-pandemic setting.

In 2019, for example, the lobby was paid $4.2 million for its work during that lawmaking session, which featured newly formed Democratic majorities in the Legislature and a recently elected Democratic governor, Janet Mills.

The highest-paid individual lobbyist, Jim Mitchell, an attorney with a longtime presence at the State House, made over $312,000 for his work before the Legislature in the first six months of the year, according to disclosure reports filed with the Maine Ethics Commission.

Mitchell’s top-paying clients include Comcast Cable Communications, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, Central Maine Power Co. and New England Clean Energy Connect LLC, among others.

Both CMP and NECEC had major stakes in bills before the Legislature this session, including one that sought to create a consumer-owned public utility with a voter-approved takeover of CMP and Versant Power Co. Versant serves electric utility customers in northern and eastern Maine.

CMP paid Mitchell $42,499, and he earned another $35,000 from NECEC.

NECEC, a company formed by CMP and Hydro Quebec to oversee the construction of a controversial powerline expansion through western Maine, also paid another lobbyist,  Zach Lingley, $18,500 to work on its behalf.

But the powerline’s foes were also paying lobbyists to work the Legislature. Also, a political action committee, Mainers for Local Power, which is largely funded by energy companies in Florida and Texas, paid five other lobbyists a total of  $112,010 through the first six months of the year.

Their top paid lobbyist, Holly Lusk, an attorney and former deputy chief of staff and health policy adviser to Republican Gov. Paul LePage, earned $42,000 from the PAC. During his time as governor, LePage was a proponent for the powerline’s expansion.

The lobbying reports further highlight the revolving door between state government for both elected and appointed officials and the lobbying industry in Maine. Another former LePage staffer, Kathleen Newman, also worked for CMP in opposition to the consumer-owned utility legislation, which was successfully vetoed by Mills.

LePage’s daughter, Lauren LePage, who also once worked as an adviser to her father, also appears in the lobbying reports, earning $15,486 working for the National Rifle Association. Meanwhile, dozens of former state lawmakers, both Democrats and Republicans, were paid thousands for working to influence their former colleagues and successors on a range of legislation, from labor union issues to taxes to environmental policy.

The pandemic forced strict limits on public access to the Legislature, which convened in January at the Augusta Civic Center instead of the State House to allow space for social distancing between lawmakers. Members of the public, including lobbyists, were prohibited from attending the proceedings in person.

Only credentialed media, a limited number of legislative staff and lawmakers were allowed inside the Civic Center. Meanwhile, legislative committee meetings and public hearings, where advocates and opponents of bills could testify, were being conducted remotely by Zoom conferences, limiting a lobbyist’s opportunity for face-to-face interaction with lawmakers or their staff.

After 14 months away the Legislature, the public and lobbyists were allowed to return to the State House in May, as pandemic restrictions and a civil state of emergency ended.

Mitchell said those constraints dramatically changed the way lobbyists did their work, and key conversation and information exchanges that often happen outside of committee meeting rooms or in the halls were no longer in play.

“When hearings and work sessions are held over Zoom that opportunity to provide necessary information to the decision makers is gone,” Mitchell said. He said lawmakers worked to make themselves available in other ways. “But because we couldn’t see them in the hallway, we would have to call them on their cellphone or text them and I’m sure that made our lives a lot more difficult and I’m sure it made their lives a lot more difficult.”

He said limited access to both nonpartisan and partisan staff also complicated lobbyists’ work.

“Most outsiders think our job is testifying and being at a work session, but really the bulk of our work is outside of the committee room interacting with (legislative) members and staff,” Mitchell said. He said some may frown on lobbying, but providing competing points of view helps lawmakers formulate positions that are in the best interest of the public.

Newell Augur, another attorney and lobbyist with both private industry and nonprofit clients, said the inability to interact face-to-face made it harder to  negotiate compromises on legislation involving competing interests.

“A lot of those discussions begin with the personal relationships that take place within the anterooms of the committee and obviously the pandemic eviscerated that,” Augur said. “There’s no way you can have that discussion on Zoom, unless it’s very, very planned and even then it’s difficult to recognize facial cues and body posture and tone in a way that leads to thoughtful discussions of policy.”

Former state Sen. Justin Chenette, a Saco Democrat, championed bills to prohibit lobbyists from contributing directly to candidates’ campaigns and requiring former lawmakers to wait at least one year before becoming a lobbyist. He said the total spent on lobbying isn’t shocking, but corporate influence over state government is still a significant concern.

He said more lawmakers are asking themselves, “Who do you want to listen to? Corporate interests and their big deep pockets or the constituents that put you in office in the first place?”

Chenette supports additional reforms, such as prohibiting lobbyists from donating to leadership PACs that top lawmakers form to raise money and distribute it to candidates from their party. Those donations are unlimited and lobbyists can easily pass on as personal donations the money they receive as payment from their clients, Chenette said.

He noted that money doesn’t necessarily guarantee victory in the Legislature.

One recent example is a bill that passed into law requiring private companies to shoulder the cost of disposing of packaging materials such as plastic, paper and cardboard.

The landmark measure, which shifts recycling costs away from municipalities, was signed into law by Mills despite a more than $37,000 lobbying effort against it paid for by the American Institute for Packaging and the Environment. The industry association represents manufacturers of packaging materials, including Dow Chemical and 3M.

But the lobby also won several large battles. For example, the top-paying client, PhRMA – which spent $80,845 on lobbyists through June – saw bills aimed at lowering prescription drug costs defeated when lawmakers sustained a pair of vetoes by Mills in July.


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