Politics & Government

Central Kentucky officials, lobbyists find earmark cupboard bare

Bob Quick, Commerce Lexington CEO, sees a different climate.
Bob Quick, Commerce Lexington CEO, sees a different climate.

WASHINGTON — There was a time when Central Kentucky lawmakers, members of the region's business community and the lobbyists who represent them could fly in to Washington, D.C., and present a wish list to members of the state's congressional delegation with a reasonable expectation that many of the requests would be fulfilled.

What a difference a recession makes.

This year the Central Kentucky Public Policy Group's annual meeting happened to coincide with an epic showdown over raising the debt ceiling, an ongoing Republican-led moratorium on earmarking, a wave of Tea Party congressional newcomers and overriding calls to trim federal spending.

The Kentucky group came to Washington in July to press federal lawmakers on everything from improving the central part of the state's water supply and highway access to urging pushback against Environmental Protection Agency regulations on coal mining permits and coal ash.

According to group members, the message this year was quite clear:

"Senator (Rand) Paul was one of the ones who said, 'If you come out and ask for money, give me an idea of what we can cut,'" said Bob Quick, chief executive officer of Commerce Lexington, a Chamber of Commerce organization.

Welcome to the world of recession-era lobbying.

"The whole lobbying playbook has to be tossed out," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense, a Washington-based budget watchdog organization. "The idea that you could be a former appropriations staffer and hang out your shingle and get clients has gone the way of the dodo. The earmark factory shops have taken a hit."

Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Somerset, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and a prolific earmarker in the past, signaled just such a shift in November after being named to the high-profile post. He suggested that many of his pet programs might end up relying more heavily on state aid or merit-based federal grants.

"My district will be among the hardest hit by these cuts, but my people understand that everyone must tighten their belts during this time of crisis," Rogers said earlier this year.

For Central Kentucky, those changes have meant shifting the expectations and the approach when lobbying for federal funds.

"We've had to adjust strategies along the way with clients looking for earmarks for projects. The pie in the sky, 'We need a several million-dollar appropriation approved,'" no longer works, said Marc Wilson, director of Focused Commonwealth Solutions, a lobbying group. "What we've done is reduce to an amount that might be in reach and move the ball forward, even if it's an inch, with the philosophy that half a loaf is better than no loaf at all."

Several years ago, when lobbyists from the region turned to then-Sen. Jim Bunning to get funding for preliminary planning to connect Nicholasville to Interstate 75, the veteran Republican lawmaker was able to secure the money relatively quickly.

"You would never expect that today," said Bob Babbage, national managing partner at Babbage Cofounder, a Lexington-based lobbying firm.

To be sure, lobbyists still compete aggressively for a smaller pool of money.

But, Ellis said, "they are also going to try and be creative in writing bills that aren't earmarks but have the same effect."

Ellis said those bills sometimes are "reverse engineered" in a way that doesn't specify where the money is going but makes clear that the funds could only be used in one way or place.

"The other way is to fund something to a level that you create a favorable climate for your project to go forward," he said. "The idea being a rising tide lifts all boats."

Lobbyists also are redoubling scrutiny of what they see as regulatory guidelines and administrative policies that hurt their clients' efforts.

In the case of coal ash, that means pressing members of Congress to fight proposed EPA rules that would classify the material as hazardous. The lobbying group also stressed what it sees as the need to process nearly 200 surface mining permits currently in administrative limbo at the EPA.

In the case of banking, the increased scrutiny has meant revisiting congressional rules that community banks say unfairly penalize them for the actions of bigger banks. That industry and their lobbyists argue that current regulations make it tough for qualified borrowers to get loans from community banks.

Still, lobbyists are keenly aware that the larder is not as full these days.

"This year we turned the dial a little bit to try to be sensitive to the seminal moment in which we were meeting," Babbage said of his group's July trip to Washington. "There we were meeting in the Library of Congress. The mood is somber and America is on the brink of debt. This time we didn't put price tags on anything. It's a post-earmark era. It's different."