Politics & Government

‘Part of the game.’ These groups spent the most to ‘access’ the Kentucky House

It wasn’t until Dec. 13 that Rep. Walker Thomas, R-Hopkinsville, got his first donation from a political action committee — more than a month after Election Day.

Thomas, a Republican, wasn’t expected to win. He didn’t get any money from Travis Brown, a Miami entrepreneur and the top individual donor to Republicans who won in the 2016 campaign, or money from the Republican election committees, which spent more than $1.9 million on the election, according to a Herald-Leader analysis of legislative campaign donations. Instead, he relied on smaller donations from citizens.

“I didn’t have any of that come in the fall,” Thomas said about PAC money. “So I’m beholden to the citizens … It’s kind of refreshing.”

Thomas is the exception to the rule. Members of the Kentucky House of Representatives collected $1.43 million from PACs representing trade groups and political causes last campaign, whether they were incumbents or challengers, opposed or unopposed.

The money furthers two primary goals — access and influence.

“We’re lobbyists. We’re a lobbying group. All lobbyists do that,” said Matt Vance, treasurer of the Kentucky Bankers Committee for State Government, which gave $93,000 to winning House candidates last fall. “We want to make sure we have a way to open a dialogue with any of these legislators should any legislation arise.”

“I hate that we have to pay for access, but it’s part of the game,” said Steve Stevens, CEO of the Kentucky Association of Realtors, which has a PAC that donated $51,750 to winning House members. “It’s truly how the world works.”

Overall, PACs donated 22.4 percent of the $6.37 million that was given directly to winning House candidates in last fall’s election. Forty-five percent of donations came from individuals and 32.5 percent was provided by campaign committees controlled by the political parties. In addition, outside groups spent millions more on their own advertising campaigns that were designed to promote or tear down specific candidates.

Follow the money: Search donations to the Kentucky House of Representatives

Although outside groups can spend unlimited amounts touting candidates, PACs and individuals are limited to donating a maximum of $2,000 to a candidate over the course of the campaign: $1,000 in both the primary and general elections.

PACs, though, have found a way to get additional money to candidates while still following the rules.

Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, pointed to the Optometric PAC, the political branch of the Kentucky Optometric Association, which gave $67,400 to the current class of representatives. In addition to those donations, individual optometrists made 107 contributions totaling $49,225 to Kentucky House members.

The question comes down to who bought the legislature. These people may be invisible, but their agenda will be seen.

State Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville

“The question comes down to who bought the legislature,” Wayne said. “These people may be invisible, but their agenda will be seen.”

Stevens said the Kentucky Realtors PAC is paying attention to several policies that could come before lawmakers this year. In particular, the group is wary of increased sales taxes on houses. They’re hoping lawmakers present solutions to the opioid epidemic because it’s hurting communities and driving down home values, and they’re interested in any efforts to cut regulations.

Mike Rust, president of the Kentucky Hospital Association, whose PAC gave $28,600 to state representatives, said the donations generally went to candidates who support their priorities, such as laws that determine how much reimbursement hospitals get for Medicaid patients and medical review panels to evaluate the merits of malpractice or neglect lawsuits.

“We want to support candidates that have been supportive of us,” Rust said.

Other spokespeople were more vague about what policies they support.

Vance said the bankers PAC is playing defense against laws that might not be favorable to banks, but he gave few details.

Liz Shepherd, chairwoman of the Kentucky Attorneys PAC, said the group gives money to candidates who “believe in protecting the full constitution and the rights it gives our citizens.”

Natasha Collins, a spokeswoman for LG&E-KU, the electric company that serves much of Kentucky, said the company’s PAC supports candidates “who are friendly to utilities issues,” but did not give specifics.

Most PACs have a governing board that determines which candidates to support based on the positions they take on issues important to the PAC.

Often that leads to PACs donating heavily to one party. The Kentucky Educators PAC donated $47,000 to winning Democrats in the House and only $3,000 to winning Republicans. Marathon Petroleum gave $25,000 to current Republicans and $2,000 to current Democrats.

Union PACs donated heavily to several Democratic candidates and rarely to Republicans, largely due to Republican support of new laws that prohibits mandatory union membership in unionized workplaces and repeal of the prevailing wage law.

Just like any good Kentuckian would do, we try to put our money on the winning horse.

Matt Vance, treasurer of the Kentucky Bankers Committee for State Government

Others, such as banks and Realtors, are equal opportunity donors. The bankers PAC donated to 84 of 100 House members, the most of any non-party affiliated campaign committee. The Realtors PAC donated to 30 Republicans and 25 Democrats.

When a lawmaker is somewhat neutral on an issue, a PAC’s donation can help determine what becomes law, Wayne said.

“You have people who are not on one side or the other on an issue and they can be swayed by the PACs,” he said.

Thomas, the freshman Republican, said the PAC donations he received after the election won’t influence his accessibility in the House.

“Anybody that’s going to send a message, I’m going to meet with,” Thomas said. “It doesn’t give them any favorability.”

PACs, though, think their contributions are money well spent.

“Just like any good Kentuckian would do, we try to put our money on the winning horse,” Vance said.

Daniel Desrochers: 502-875-3793, @drdesrochers, @BGPolitics