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Wednesday, 21 June 2006 00:00

A moment of your time? Lobbyists courting lawmakers take center stage in Raleigh

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Editor’s note: Smoky Mountain News reporter Becky Johnson spent two days in Raleigh last week covering local representatives at work in the General Assembly. Johnson’s reporting of the activities in Raleigh covers the gamut, from the omnipresent professional lobbyists to citizen groups trying to build support for their special projects, to elected officials trying to juggle dozens of large and small tasks in a day to the passage of the all-important state budget.

 

Lunchtime in the legislative building in Raleigh last Wednesday found lawmakers swarmed around a catered buffet table set up in the lobby.

Nearly every day of the week a special interest group is doling out food. Today’s fare was on the veterans — barbeque, fried fish, hushpuppies, baked beans and coleslaw. Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, grabbed a plate and sat down with fellow lawmakers at a table near the buffet line.

Those who were done eating their barbeque waltzed from one table to the next. Relationships require constant upkeep here, and cementing ties between allies is a daily affair. A quick jovial exchange was enough to affirm their standing with one another.

Belly laughs are the norm, as are handshakes with the left hand planted firmly on the other’s elbow, often holding it there while talking. Such exchanges are more effective when witnessed by others, sending subtle messages about who sticks together.

Rep. Dewey Hill, D-Columbus County, strolled by tossing out miniature Almond Joy candy bars. Haire ate one and pocketed another. Haire’s phone rang.

“I’m still working on it,” Haire said, referring to a pair of tickets he was trying to score for the big ice hockey game that night.

Haire wasn’t the only one who wanted to catch the Carolina Hurricanes competing for hockey’s Stanley Cup. The importance of tickets became evident when later that evening Speaker of the House Jim Black suggested wrapping up debate on the state’s budget for the day.

“I can see those of you out there with tickets for tonight are starting to get nervous,” Black said from the podium on the floor of the House chamber.

Back in the legislative halls, there was little vetting over who got the veteran’s barbeque lunch. Other special interest groups on lobbying blitzes of their own that day eventually found their way to the buffet line. When four teachers from Transylvania County showed up at the office of Sen. John Snow, D-Murphy, to lobby for teachers’ raises, Snow invited the ladies down the hall to grab some barbeque while they talked.

 

Lobbying blitz

If there’s one word that describes a day in the life of the North Carolina General Assembly, it’s lobbyist.

Not just the professional lobbyists, although there’s plenty of them swarming around the lawmakers like flies on honey hoping to curry favors big and small. That’s only half of it. The legislative building is crawling with special interest groups who rally supporters from across the state for day-long lobbying blitzes. Lawmakers never know who’s coming around the corner to hit them up next.

Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, was listening for the five minute warning bell from his office across the hall from the House chamber last Wednesday when a suitor appeared at his door — the fourth so far that day and it was only 10:30 a.m. This one was a school counselor from Buncombe County bearing a passel of blue tote bags looped over one arm. She extended one to Rapp.

“I’m on the No Gifts List, but thank you anyway,” Rapp said.

Legislators on the No Gifts List constantly turn down coffee mugs, key chains, ball caps, and in this case a tote bag. Such paraphernalia is a common component of lobbying blitzes. The No Gifts List is a convenient way to avoid the kitsch that would otherwise soon clutter a lawmaker’s office. But it also makes Rapp off limits for coveted items like tickets to big-time sporting events — like the ice hockey game — that are doled out by the lobbyists. It’s one reason the No Gifts List has not proven very popular.

So just what did the school counselors blitzing the legislative halls want? They were tired of being roped into administrative chores like testing and wanted a bill that ensured their job description as counselors.

Meanwhile, hordes of veterans in black pointy hats were crawling the halls seeking support for a veteran’s nursing home in Asheville.

A disabled veteran from Mitchell County soon showed up on the doorstep of Sen. Keith Presnell, R-Burnsville.

“First I want to emphasize I appreciate your time,” said the veteran, Al Sagan. The line was standard introductory fare, right out of the lobbying blitz playbook.

“I appreciate you as a veteran and what you have done for us,” Presnell told him. “Thank you for coming by. It does make a difference for our mountain folks to come by.”

Upstairs from Presnell’s office, Paul Carlson with the Land Trust for the Little Tennessee in Franklin was waiting outside the office of Sen. John Snow, D-Murphy, for him to return. The strategy for any lobbying blitz is to match up advocates with lawmakers from their part of the state. Carlson, a potential voter in Snow’s election this fall, has more sway than someone, say, from Wilmington pushing the same message. Most lobbying blitz organizers hold a crash course the morning of to disseminate talking points and marching orders, including lawmaker assignments.

It’s probably where Carlson got the signature green “Land for Tomorrow” sticker that was on his shirt. It wasn’t nearly as visible from a distance as the veterans’ pointy black hats, but nonetheless identified the troupes. The Land for Tomorrow bill would authorize a statewide bond vote on the November ballot. The bond vote would designate $1 billion for preserving farmland, parks and natural areas.

 

The hired guns

The paid lobbyists are spotted easily by the trained eye — or ear.

“I’m here to see our fine representative,” said Stan Pace, a lobbyist for Verizon, as he popped his head into the Raleigh office of Rep. Phil Haire, D-Sylva, one morning last week.

Pace was looping the halls of the legislative building spreading good news. Verizon had expanded high-speed Internet access into numerous rural communities, including Haire’s home county. But Pace wasn’t about to squander the visit with just that, and soon delved into a little rapport building.

“Forget the huge investment we’ve made in your community. Now for why I’m really here,” Pace said, pulling out pictures of his two-month-old baby as Haire and his assistant gathered around.

Coddling relationships is a good bit of what lobbyists do. It’s harder to say no to a friend.

When the lawmakers go into session, the lobbyists loiter around the doors of the House and Senate chambers like a cross between vultures and ladies in waiting — brash in their motives but refined in their method.

Sometimes their most crucial work happens there in lobbyist alley while the lawmakers are confined in the chambers. Temporarily left without lawmakers to lobby — barring a lone soul forced to run the gauntlet on his bathroom break — the lobbyists lobby each other.

“Just because something is a good idea for one group, it could be awful for another group and a legislator would have to weigh all of that,” explained Ivan Urlaub, executive director of the N.C. Sustainable Energy Association, who was doing the lobbyists’ mingle Wednesday afternoon.

The last thing a lobbyist wants is other lobbyists knocking on lawmakers doors behind him, undermining what he’d just been rooting for.

Occasionally, lobbyists filter into the spectator balcony overlooking the House and Senate chambers, like a puppeteer looking down on his work and hoping the marionette strings don’t get tangled mid-act.

Most lobbyists don’t talk to reporters. They won’t share who they are or why they’re loitering around. There are droves of them, however, hoping to influence policy behind the scenes to benefit special interests.

Such was the case with one lobbyist visiting the office of Sen. Keith Presnell, R-Burnsville, last week.

“I just stopped by to talk to this fine Senator,” lobbyist Joyce Peters said as she appeared in Presnell’s doorway with an outstretched hand. They sat down in Presnell’s office and spoke out of earshot.

“We appreciate you trying to help us out with that,” Peters said, as she left Presnell’s office about seven minutes later.

When asked later that day what Peters had been seeking, Presnell could not remember.

“I cannot remember what it was about,” Presnell said. “I better not go into detail.”

Often lobbyists aren’t after anything in particular, but are ready to pounce on murmurs of disagreeable ideas and kill them before they gain momentum. Playing offense is easier than defense.

“You have to wade into the middle of the stream and be part of the process,” explained Butch Gunnells, a lobbyist for the N.C. Beverage Association.

Last year, when Gunnells heard lawmakers were drafting a bill to ban high-calorie sodas and sugary juices from school vending machines, he got in on the process.

The final bill banned all soft drinks in elementary schools and permits only diet soda in middle schools. High school vending has no restrictions, other than a lunch hour ban on soda sales. The bill does not address high-calorie juice and sports drinks. After all, there’s money to be made selling unhealthy drinks to minors on public school property.

 

An ounce of prevention

There’s always a surreal air in the legislative building. This was true last week as Chip Killian, a powerful lobbyist from Haywood County, walked past an entourage of African drummers performing in the foyer, forcing lawmakers and lobbyists to stand even closer and talk even louder.

Killian was heading to the Senate with a somewhat odd mission. There was a typo in a bill passed last year and it needed correcting. The bill was supposed to require foreign language notaries to post their fees in that language. But a typo cited the wrong section of state statute. So instead, the bill required notaries who are officers in the armed forces to post their fees in a second language.

Killian represents the N.C. Register of Deeds Association, which caught the error. This highlights another role of lobbyists, acting as needed watchdogs for unintended or accidental side effects of bills. Lobbyists can research issues lawmakers don’t have time to, and pick apart the state budget for hidden provisions lawmakers might not catch.

For example, the state budget last year included a little known provision requiring every child in the state to get an eye exam before entering kindergarten. It was secretively inserted by Speaker of the House Jim Black without lawmakers’ knowledge.

“No one knew it was in there. That’s what everyone was so mad about,” said Sen. John Snow, D-Murphy. So now lawmakers are passing a bill to repeal it.

Here is one case where a little vetting of the budget by fastidious late-night lobbyists could have proved helpful. Of course, if it weren’t for lobbyists — namely the optometrist lobby and numerous campaign donations to Black — such a provision might have never made into the budget in the first place.

 

Taking care of business

As a part-time legislature, lawmakers meet for just a few months each year, and for only half a work week at a time. They trickle into Raleigh Monday afternoon and evening, and take off for home by mid-day on Thursday.

The arrangement was devised more than a century ago, when legislators traveled to Raleigh by horse to tend to the state’s affairs in a mostly agrarian society. But North Carolina is projected to be seventh largest state in the country by the year 2020, and things are increasingly being left undone in legislators’ haste.

There might not be time this session to pass the Land for Tomorrow conservation initiative, for example, or examine overcrowding in prisons. Then consider the time consumed by debate over whether students should be required to say the Pledge of Allegiance in school or whether to amend the state’s Constitution to ban gay marriage.

Of course, these are two hot button issues that the legislators might conveniently not get around to voting on. Time is of the essence, after all.

“Sometimes when they stay longer than they should, they start to do things that shouldn’t be done because they are looking for things to do,” said Killian, a lobbyist.

Regardless, the compressed schedule adds to the frenzy as lobbyists scramble to pull lawmakers’ strings in a short window.

The N.C. Home Builders Association had at least three lobbyists on deck in the legislative building last Wednesday, including Joe Tarascio who piled into an elevator beside a reporter. He looked like a lobbyist, and was indeed. His goal for the day was nipping a bill in the bud that would be good for the environment but bad for developers. It would limit the impervious surface of new development to 12 percent of a building lot in one coastal community. The impervious surface — anything water can’t soak into — includes parking lots, driveways and rooftops. Tarascio said the provision would mean “less runoff going into streams and less pollution.” But developers could pack fewer houses on an acre.

Meanwhile, another lobbyist with the Homebuilders Association made a beeline for Presnell as he walked into a committee meeting. She pumped his hand with both of hers in a heartfelt hello. Lawmakers on the committee would be voting on a bill to limit the height of buildings in Kure Beach to 35 feet. The town has its own ordinance to that effect, but wanted extra oomph from a state bill. The Homebuilders lobbyist seemed to have a friend in Presnell, who wasn’t wild about the bill.

“If you have a two-story house with a gable roof, you could be going over 35 feet,” Presnell said. The bill was ultimately recommended for further study — effectively delaying its passage — despite a dozen Kure Beach residents packing the audience.

 

Feeding frenzy

Free meals don’t stop with lunch. If lawmakers play their cards right, they can eat all three meals a day on the job. Evening receptions are the most lavish, usually capping off a lobbying day blitz by a special interest group. Simply serving up food in the halls of the legislative building pales in comparison to spreads at the receptions where alcoholic drinks and live music in rented facilities are the norm.

Last Wednesday evening when the House adjourned for the day, Rep. Ray Rapp, D-Mars Hill, slapped on a name tag and headed into a reception held by supporters of Land for Tomorrow, a conservation initiative. Rapp was quickly drawn into a discussion about whether the bill would be brought to a vote.

The Land for Tomorrow function was definitely grassroots. The spread was not much bigger than the average dining room table with the leaves out for a holiday dinner.

Rapp’s next stop was a function held by the state’s Rural Electric Cooperatives. It clearly was a much wealthier group. A buffet table at least 20-feet long was filled with tiered serving platters boasting a dozen kinds of skewered appetizers and the full line-up of fruit and vegetable trays, dips and cheese spreads.

The evening functions are part social occassions and part obligatory. Name tags for each lawmakers are often pre-made. The special interest groups know who came and who didn’t by the tags left at night’s end.

 

Mutiny in the ranks

After the lobbying blitzes by special interest groups and the professional lobbyists, there’s yet another group competing for lawmakers’ favor: state departments.

Last Thursday, Theodis Beck, Secretary of Corrections, came to visit Sen. John Snow, D-Murphy, seeking money for a new hospital at Central Prison in Raleigh. Snow is co-chairman of the committee that writes the budget for prisons and courts.

The Senate’s version of the state budget doesn’t include money for a new prison hospital, but the House budget and Governor’s budget do.

Snow asked Beck how this happened.

“We didn’t do the heavy lifting early on that we needed to do,” Beck said. “We were caught off guard. This budget is moving at break neck speed.”

Beck hoped it wasn’t too late and asked Snow to support the funding when it was time to reconcile the House and Senate budgets.

That afternoon, Rep. Roger West, D-Murphy, was heading to a meeting between two state agencies fighting over office space. One of West’s committees sanctioned a study to examine office space needs. An agency slated to give up some office space as a result of the study was unhappy and called a meeting.

“You might say we are the referees,” West said. “I don’t really want to be bothered with it but it looks like I’ll have to.”

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