Ask Bob: How Have The Numbers Of Lobbyists Increased In Montpelier?

Feb 20, 2018

VPR reporter Bob Kinzel has been covering the Statehouse since 1981 — longer than any continuously serving member of the Legislature.

To take advantage of that institutional memory, we're kicking off a new periodic segment called "Ask Bob." First up: a look at the increasing number of lobbyists in the Vermont Statehouse.

Listen to the conversation above.

What lobbyists do

To some people, the term "lobbyist" can conjure up a kind of sleazy image — and that negative connotation may be people reacting to sort of the "Washington, D.C." stereotype of a lobbyist.

Here in Vermont, lawmakers don't have staff and they are essentially on their own to research information on complicated issues — that's where the lobbyists come in and provide information to lawmakers on a specific issue.

That information needs to be accurate, or a lobbyist will lose their credibility at the Statehouse. Now, this doesn't mean lawmakers necessarily accept all information from lobbyists at face value, but it does give them some content when considering an issue or thinking about how it may affect a constituency.

A really good lobbyist? They'll know the arguments on the other side of their issue, and they'll acknowledge to lawmakers that opposing viewpoints have some merit.

And it's not just lawmakers who interact with lobbyists. They also pitch stories and provide background information to reporters and keep the media up to date on a bill's progress or make it known if they feel their client isn't being treated fairly. So reporters also learn which lobbyists can be trusted and perhaps who can't.

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Types of lobbyists

There's all sorts of lobbyists. The vast majority represent a single issue or organization. Then there are some lobbyists who run their own businesses and take on a variety of different clients.

Then there are the big lobbying firms, which employ a lot of support staff and also cater to a variety of clients. There are several of these organizations in Montpelier, and this type of lobbying organization really took off in the late 1980s when two members of former Gov. Madeleine Kunin's staff — Bob Sherman and Steve Kimball — launched their own firm that's grown into a major Montpelier operation.

Lobbyists, by the numbers

The growing number of lobbyists may be one of the biggest changes in the operations of the Legislature. According to the state archives:

  • In 1969, there were 63 registered lobbyists
  • In 1982, there were 152 registered lobbyists

And now as of January 2018, the Secretary of State's Office says there are 452 registered lobbyists in Vermont. While all these people aren't in the Statehouse every day, there's probably around 50 or 60 lobbyists on any given day.

Why so much growth?

It's a combination of factors as to why there's been such an exponential growth in the Vermont lobbyist population.

First, the kinds of issues coming before the Legislature have gotten much more complicated over the years. To some extent that's because many issues that were previously dealt with at the federal level have now been turned over to states.

Speaking of the role of the state, there are also issues where some people think Congress isn't taking positive action on some specific concerns, and so they want the state to act on it.

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An effective lobby in Montpelier...

They weren't technically lobbyists, but a group of students from the Vermont State Colleges came to the Statehouse several years ago to urge lawmakers to increase the appropriation for the state colleges.

The students, concerned about an increase in tuition fees, wore signs at the Statehouse that detailed how much debt they had. It personalized the issue of student loans, and while they didn't get everything they asked for, that effort very well may have helped awareness of their cause.

...And a not-so-effective lobby in Montpelier

Back in 2000, lawmakers were debating the civil unions bill. A group from out-of-state strongly opposing the bill would come to the Statehouse dressed in dark suits, dark hats and moved around the building in groups.

Their strategy? To surround individual lawmakers and berate them if they supported the bill, and additionally, this group was physically intimidating to many of the women lawmakers supporting the bill.

It's unclear how or why they took this strategy, but ultimately the civil unions legislation successfully passed.

Your turn: What do you want to ask Bob?

What wonky things do you want to know about the inner-workings of state government? What questions keep you up at night about the Legislature? Curious about an aspect of Montpelier history?

Send us an email or comment below!