Big spenders during legislative session win, others lose

Most business people understand they must spend money to make money.

This simple principle clearly applies to the ever-growing investment in lobbying the Kentucky General Assembly.

The Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission reported Tuesday that a record $9.53 million was spent lobbying the 60-day session that ended in April. That’s a 9-percent jump from spending in lobbying expenses in the 2014 session.

While there are interest groups that lobby the General Assembly for causes that don’t benefit them or their members economically, almost all of the big spenders can put a dollar figure to their interests.

For example, the largest spender this last session, The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce ($149,002) crowed that its lobbying efforts saved businesses $460 million a year.

The chamber did advocate for some legislation without a clear dollar value. It joined the successful effort to allow people with one conviction on a low-level felony to expunge it from their record, giving them a much better shot at rebuilding their lives. It also backed failed efforts to increase transparency in public pensions and area development districts.

But in other areas the chamber, like many of the big-dollar lobbying efforts, championed measures where one party’s gain came at another’s cost.

For example, among the measures the chamber helped stymie was a proposal to require employers of 50 or more people to give six weeks of paid maternity leave to women who had been employed for at least a year.

Likewise, the chamber fought back an effort to introduce paid sick leave in Kentucky by requiring employers to provide one hour per 30 worked. The chamber also lobbied successfully against a tax-reform measure that would have extended sales taxes to include most services.

Obviously, the chamber effectively argued that these measures would increase the cost of doing business and so drive up prices for all of us. But where was the money to educate legislators about the tradeoff of further stressing economically marginal families who must choose between time off with a newborn and missing a paycheck? Or the health impact on co-workers and customers when a sick person feels compelled to come into work?

Without a tax on services, the person who buys a car to get to work pays sales tax while a group ferried to a party in a limousine doesn’t. Where was the money for that message?

Taxes were, of course, a big target for lobbyists. The Kentucky Retail Federation increased its lobbying budget 44 percent over 2014 (to $117,941) to combat a proposed constitutional amendment that would have allowed cities and counties to add one percent to local sales taxes.

Altria, also known as Philip Morris USA and U.S. Smokeless Tobacco, spent $119,905 lobbying against raising the tax on — you guessed it — cigarettes and against a proposed new tax on e-cigarettes.

Another, stranger, intersection of economic self-interest and health showed up in the Kentucky Hospital Association’s ($131,472, up 26 percent from 2014) lobbying priorities.

While the association understandably lobbied for more prompt Medicaid payments (cash flow) and against licensing midwives (protect a profitable monopoly) it also jumped in to oppose raising the minimum wage.

This is interesting in part because it belies the image of hospitals as economic catalysts creating good-paying, skilled jobs, far above the minimum-wage fray. But it’s also intriguing because there is a direct link between low income and poor health.

A hospital association lobbying against a wage increase in Kentucky, a state that’s stricken by health-crushing poverty — now that’s a questionable investment.