Capitol Hill Conversation – Lobbyists Adapt to New Rules

 

More than 500 people are registered as lobbyists at the Tennessee state capitol. Image courtesy TEMA

More than 500 people are registered as lobbyists at the Tennessee state capitol. Image courtesy TEMA

Lobbyists at the state capitol remain in overdrive trying to find sponsors for their legislation before all the good ones were gone. A new cap on the number of bills that can be filed in the General Assembly is expected to alter how the legislature does business. And lobbyists are at the center of it all.

“Instead of having five or six bills, we’re encouraging our clients to really pare down their want-list and really focus on what’s most important now,” says lobbyist Mark Greene, who represents health care organizations and is also represents the lobbyist association.

Lobbyists have three jobs. They monitor what goes on, making sure they know of any laws that might affect their employer or client. A change that might seem small to a lawmaker could put someone’s company out of business, Greene says.

Defense is a big part of the job.. Take for instance lobbyists for liquor stores. This year they’re doing all they can to keep a law from passing that would allow wine to be sold in grocery stores.

And of course, lobbyists also have laws their clients or employers want to see passed into law.

Just about everyone has a lobbyist working on their behalf, whether they know it or not. WPLN has one – the Tennessee Broadcasters Association. The YMCA has a few. Vanderbilt has nine folks registered as lobbyists.

Big corporations employ tons of lobbyists. AT&T has the most – according to the state ethics commission – with 14 lobbyists working the capitol this year, though certainly not all of those registered are roaming the halls every day.

Sometimes lobbyists have clearly written bills that they just need to find an agreeable lawmaker to sponsor. But there’s been a pervasive practice known as using a “caption bill.” A lobbyist gets a lawmaker to introduce legislation early in the session prior to the filing deadline, but it does something innocuous, like change the number of seats on a board. It’s just intended to open up part of state law for changes, maybe pharmacy regulations.

So-called caption bills aren’t meant to be passed as they are. They’re amended to do something else, or they may not get used. House members say if they can only introduce 15 bills, they will be less willing to save a spot for a caption bill.

A lobbyist worth his or her salt usually wants an experienced legislator to shepherd a bill through the complicated process of committee hearings. But with the new limit on legislation, the huge crop of newly elected lawmakers may see more high profile legislation coming their way. So lobbyists are getting to know them, some by making flashcards.

“It’s hard when you have huge freshmen classes,” Greene says. “So I got their picture that I cut out of the directory on one side and a little biographical information. What they do, what district they come from, who their wife is.”

Greene argues that lobbyists do not have a diminished role this year, though it might be a tough time to be starting a firm. Organizations with less funding who might depend on volunteer lobbyists may have a tougher time being heard, he says.

But the lobbying trade will survive in Tennessee. Greene says, “we are nothing if not adaptable.”

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