Lawmakers Pocketed Thousands from Lobbyists in May

Monday, June 18, 2012

 

As the clock ticked away on the 2012 legislative session, elected officials loaded up on nearly $40,000 in campaign contributions from lobbyists, according to May lobbying reports filed with the Secretary of State’s office last week.

In the final full month of the session, lawmakers with direct influence over the budget benefited the most, with House Finance chairman Helio Melo leading the way with $5,200 in contributions from lobbyists. Senate Majority Whip Maryellen Goodwin was next with $4,450 in contributions and Senate Finance chairman Daniel DaPonte finished third with $3,850, records show.

Governor Lincoln Chafee signed the $8.1 billion 2013 fiscal year budget into law last Friday, praising the increased aid for education, additional funding for the I-195 commission and several bond items, but he also expressed disappointment with the use of one-time fixes to plug holes and the fact that only a small portion of his municipal relief package was approved by the General Assembly.

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Chafee received $3,000 in campaign contributions from lobbyists in May, good for the fourth-most on the list.

In total, 52 elected officials, political action committees (PACs) or candidates for office padded their campaign war chests with $38,794.02 in lobbyist contributions during the month. The rest of the top ten included House Corporations Committee chairman Brian Patrick Kennedy ($2,800), House Speaker Gordon Fox ($1,900), Senate Majority Leader Dominick Ruggerio ($1,850), Senate Judiciary chairman Michael McCaffrey ($1,675), Rep. Cale Keable ($1,425) and Senate President M. Teresa Paiva-Weed ($1,237.02).

Casino Lobbyists Played Major Role

While the total amount dished out may only be a drop in the bucket compared with what lawmakers facing re-election campaigns may spend this fall, Common Cause executive director John Marion said he remains amazed by how influential lobbyists are.

“In Rhode Island because legislators are so part time and the support staff is so weak (and controlled so closely by leadership) lobbyists seem to have an outsized role here,” Marion said Sunday evening.

Records show many of the state’s most influential lobbyists were the top campaign contributors during the session. For example, former Warwick Mayor Joseph Walsh, who lobbied on behalf of at least a dozen companies, contributed $2,250 to 12 elected officials in May. Former Senate Finance chairman Stephen Alves contributed $1,025. Marc Crisafulli, Managing Partner of Hinckley, Allen & Snyder, contributed $2,225. Former House Majority Whip Chris contributed $1,725 during the month.

Marion said one of the biggest questions of the legislative session is how much of a role lobbyists played in negotiating the state's cut of table games. Records show Twin River and Newport Grand combined to spend $29,134.38 on lobbyists in May alone.

If voters approve table gaming at the two casinos this fall, the state will receive 18 percent of the net revenue from games such as blackjack, craps and roulette. Supporters of the expansion to table games is vital to the state’s economic future, particularly with Massachusetts set to build three resort-style casinos and a slot parlor over the next decade.

“During the floor debate it was asked over and over again who negotiated the take, and that question hasn't been answered sufficiently,” Marion said. “How much were the lobbyists for Twin River and Newport Grand involved?”

“There has to be a Better Way”

For evidence of the influence lobbyists can play on Smith Hill, Marion, a registered lobbyist himself, said one should look no further than comments State Senator John Tassoni made to the Providence Journal last week. The retiring lawmaker made it clear he intends to become a lobbyist when the revolving door rule (which forces lawmakers to wait one year after leaving office before they begin lobbying) is up.

“For a long time we've seen the likes of Bob Goldberg and others, and now a new big-time lobbyist has emerged; former Speaker William Murphy,” Marion said. “Those trying to reform payday lending had a lot going for them, including the support of the two most popular politicians in the state (Gina Raimondo and Angel Taveras) but the payday lenders had the man to whom many still owe their positions in the Assembly.”

While lobbyists will continue playing a major role in politics locally and across the country, some states have at least taken steps to curb their influence on lawmakers during key decision-making periods. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Rhode Island is one of 22 states that does not place any restrictions on giving and receiving campaign contributions during the legislative session.

Common Cause has called for legislation that would limit fundraising during the session, but did not do so during the 2012 session. During a press conference earlier this year Speaker Fox indicated he would not support such a bill.

But Marion says the current system will continue to raise eyebrows. He said he has spoken with lobbyists from some of the largest firms in the state and even they dislike the system.

“If you were creating a system of government from scratch and you proposed the idea that those trying to influence the government were allowed to give money to those they're trying to influence at the very time crucial decisions are being made it would be too farfetched to believe,” Marion said. “But that's the situation our campaign finance system puts us in. There has to be a better way.”

 

Dan McGowan can be reached at [email protected]
 

 

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