slides: RI Unions Spent Over $350,000 Lobbying the Legislature
Friday, April 15, 2016
While there’s a rampant perception that unions dominate the lobbying scene in Rhode Island, those numbers indicate that perception couldn’t be further from the truth, say union lobbyists and union officials.
“If you look at the overall picture, big business--for example, Verizon, the hospitals, Walmart--the amount of money that they can pay their lobbyists is a fraction of what gets spent by unions,” said Tassoni.
“There’s this notion that the unions have all the power at the statehouse. And it’s unequivocally not true.”
Tassoni, a former union official from AFSCME Council 94 and state senator from Smithfield, who now works as a lobbyist and serves as publisher of The Smithfield Times, said that the union leaders are good businessmen and women. They get a good return on investment from their lobbyists, he said. The notion that the union lobbyists work hard and spend exorbitant amounts of time at the statehouse is true, according to Tassoni.
Tassoni who last year lobbied on behalf of the Rhode Island Brotherhood of Correctional Officers and the RI Fraternal Order of Police—earning $15,000 for the former and $16,000 from the latter—pointed out that some Rhode Island lobbyists earned almost $300,000 last year lobbying for private sector and non-profit institutions.
Paul Valletta, who serves as the lobbyist for the RI State Association of Firefighters, said that the reason private sector organizations can pay more is simple. They’ve got profits.
“The private sector can afford to pay more for lobbyist because they’ve got the money. We rely on union dues,” said Valletta.
But Patricia Morgan, a Republican state representative (R-Coventry, West-Warwick, Warwick), said that all lobbying, whether it’s by unions or big business, can portend negative consequences for Rhode Island.
“Let’s face it: any group that gives an inordinate amount of money to influence policy or have decisions made that benefit their own special interests is going to end up being bad for the average Rhode Islander,” said Morgan.
According to Secretary of State data, the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters Local 51 was the union that spent the most on lobbyists last year—expending $36,000 to The Mayforth Group.
The average amount spent by Rhode Island unions was just under $21,000. The median number—the number directly on the middle of the list—was the RI Carpenters Union Local 94, represented by Nicholas Hemond and Zachary Darrow of Capitol Communications, which spent $23,000.
Valletta, like many union lobbyists, is a union member himself. He’s a Cranston firefighter who serves as his local’s President.
“There are very few unions who go outside to hire their own lobbyists,” said Tassoni, naming the few. “The others use guys like George Nee.”
More Dollars than Cents
Quantifying union lobbying spending isn’t an exact science, as even people on opposite ends of the political spectrum, like Morgan and Tassoni, point out. The unions have resources like George Nee, the President of the RI AFL-CIO, who is a fixture at the statehouse with relationships with so many legislators. Smaller unions that cannot afford lobbyists can rely on folks like Nee without having to pay him directly.
Tassoni sees that as a disadvantage due to a lack of individual representation and financing, whereas Morgan sees it as advantageous since unions are focused on legislative issues.
In any event, many unions pay their lobbyists a “percentage of salary” to lobby the legislature, which obviously means their lobbyists are in-house employees. (In the cases where a report indicated a percentage of salary without detailing the employee’s salary, Golocal used the most recent salary data of the union official from the latest LM form filed with the federal Office of Labor-Management Standards).
It’s those capabilities that lead Justin Katz, who serves as the research director at the Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity, to believe that union influence, particularly public sector unions, has weighed the state down.
“It's almost too obvious to deny that labor unions' political activity, often subsidized in one way or another by taxpayers, give them a controlling edge in government,” said Katz.
“Our entire system—from the people who hold public office to the inside access of employees—skews in their favor. Think of all the legislators, town council members, and school committee members who are current or retired union members. That's all part of the system.”
Katz is of the belief that the power of public sector unions has had a negative impact on the state’s economy. His view is relatively common among Rhode Island conservatives.
“This dynamic affects others' freedom and prosperity in a number of ways. The increased taxes and general cost of government, business, and living in the state constrain resources and, therefore, opportunities, and so do the advantages labor unions give themselves, mainly through legislation,” said Katz.
Related Slideshow: Top Lobbying Unions - Who Spent the Most and Who Is Their Lobbyist - 2016
Providence Firefighters Local 799
Lobbyist: Derek Silva, Paul Doughty
**The Firefighters union on Friday noted that their report to the Secretary of State and the data listed within denotes the highest amount that the union could possibly spend on lobbying. Vice President Derek Silva said the union spent about $7,200 on lobbying last year.
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