As Lobbying in N.H. Grows More Complex, It's Nearly Impossible to Follow the Money

Jul 18, 2019

They can be found shuffling across North State Street on days when the legislative calendar is packed with public hearings. You see them taking notes from the Senate balcony during floor votes, and chatting with lawmakers in the hallways throughout the capitol.

Lobbyists have long been part of the fabric of the New Hampshire State House, helping shape everything from the state budget to the finer points of agritourism policy. But their influence is often hard to measure.

To better understand the scope of that influence in recent years, NHPR analyzed lobbying registrations dating back to 2012, tracking what kind of groups were employing the most hired help in Concord. We also reviewed hundreds of lobbying financial disclosures, to better understand how money flows from those groups, through individual lobbyists and lobbying firms, to influence public policy.

We found that New Hampshire’s lobbying class represents all kinds of interests — including, increasingly, nonprofit organizations and out-of-state corporations. But there’s little consistency in what information is reported about how much money any client is spending on its lobbying efforts and where that money is going.

(Related: Explore New Hampshire Lobbyists' Financial Disclosures)

As is often the case when it comes to matters of money and politics in New Hampshire, there’s little to no oversight of the lobbyists' financial disclosure forms. No one is enforcing penalties to ensure the reports are filed, period, let alone filled out completely and correctly.

Assistant Attorney General Nicholas Chong Yen, who oversees campaign finance and lobbying enforcement as head of the New Hampshire Department of Justice’s Election Law Unit, says his office does not routinely inspect these filings. Right now, Chong Yen says his team includes just two people, and they can’t take on such a review without more help.

But the attorney general’s office has requested more money to hire additional staff. And, if that happens, Chong Yen said an audit of lobbying financial disclosures is high on his priority list.

“Hopefully with that personnel we would have additional people that would be able to go through these forms and identify at least as an initial screening level that the lobbying firms are actually filing these statements as required, and then we would be able to proceed from there,” Chong Yen said. 

Missing reports, blank pages obscure true scope of influence

NHPR’s review of the lobbying financial reports on file with the Secretary of State’s office uncovered systemic deficiencies in lobbyists’ financial disclosure statements, including multiple instances where lobbyists filed reports late or failed to file them at all.

New Hampshire law requires registered lobbyists to report “all fees received from any lobbying client that are related, directly or indirectly, to lobbying, such as public advocacy, government relations, or public relations services including research, monitoring legislation, and related legal work.” They’re also supposed to disclose “all expenditures made from lobbying fees, including by whom paid or to whom charged.” 

Many lobbying firms file a single form listing activity related to all of the lobbyists who work on a particular client, rather than breaking those costs down per lobbyist. Some lobbyists did not report any fees on their financial disclosure statements, while others reported fees but no expenses. A small portion of lobbyists itemized the money they spent on meals, conferences and other lobbying work — but on many forms, this section was left blank.

The New Hampshire Hospital Association, for example, does not list anything under the “fees” section of its financial disclosure reports, the part meant to capture how much money an organization or firm is bringing in to fund its lobbying work. When asked why, New Hampshire Hospital Association President Steve Ahnen said he doesn’t believe that’s required.

“We haven’t included any figures under fees received, as we don’t interpret the form as calling for a reporting of membership dues, which support the full range of our operations and services on behalf of our member hospitals,” Ahnen said in an email to NHPR.

The hospital association also failed to file financial disclosure statements related to its work in the second half of 2018 until months after those forms were originally due. As of Thursday, its disclosure statement for the first quarter of 2019 was still not yet posted on the Secretary of State’s website, even though it should have been submitted in April. The association confirmed that it missed some recent filings but they “are now up to date and we intend to keep it that way.”

Even when lobbyists’ reports are filed on time, there’s not a lot of detail about how they’re spending money on clients’ behalf. 

The business of lobbying can encompass a range of activities beyond simply bending a lawmakers’ ear on behalf of a client. Lobbyists track legislation and monitor public contracts before the Executive Council, but they also craft public relations talking points around various bills and, in some cases, the bills themselves. They attend industry conferences, assemble research, provide behind-the-scenes communications strategy, line up people to testify at public hearings, arrange meetings with public officials and more.

Former Senate Majority Leader Bob Clegg, who started his own lobbying firm after leaving the State House in 2008, doubts the disclosure forms give the public a full picture of how much money New Hampshire's lobbying firms are raising and spending from their clients.

“There's so many ways to hide it,” Clegg said. “If you took a look at some of the biggest firms and you look at what they claim on some of their fees, it would be impossible for them to pay their staff.” 

Clegg noted that some firms can skirt disclosure requirements by writing off their work as “consulting” or “legal assistance” instead of lobbying. 

“If somebody's giving me $50,000 a year to represent them,” Clegg hypothesized, “and I only claim the time I actually speak to a legislator, and then I call all the rest 'consulting' does it really show how much we're being paid to influence legislation?”

Representing a wide, and growing, range of interests

There are few interests unrepresented by at least one lobbyist. Watersports salesmen and snowmobilers have lobbyists; librarians, nurse anesthetists, tax collectors, beer brewers and golf course superintendents do, too. There are lobbyists working for New Hampshire’s counties, its cities and, in some cases, for individual towns. Even this news organization, in a way, has a lobbyist: Former WMUR-TV anchor Scott Spradling lobbies on behalf of the New Hampshire Association of Broadcasters, of which NHPR is a member.

The overall number of clients linked to lobbyists hasn't grown substantially in recent years. But increasingly, lobbyists for corporations and trade associations are being joined by a new class of peers from the nonprofit sector. 

“Lobbying is something of a dirty word, and it's something that I think for a long time people have not wanted necessarily to have that label applied to their staff or their organization,” said Sarah Mattson Dustin, executive director of New Hampshire Legal Assistance, one of a handful of nonprofits that have bulked up their lobbying efforts in recent years. “The truth is that lobbying is a way of communicating with people who are going to make really consequential decisions that affect the lives of thousands of people in New Hampshire.”

In recent years, New Hampshire Legal Assistance has maintained one of the largest lobbying rosters at the State House, at least in terms of how many lobbyists were registered on its behalf. Eight of their staffers are registered as lobbyists this session, but in recent years its been as high as 17, putting them ahead of corporations like Eversource and Comcast. 

Mattson Dustin said most of the people registered for NHLA are staff attorneys with different legal specialties rather than full-time lobbyists. While those people might only attend a handful of public hearings a year to weigh in on an issue that intersects with their practice areas, they register as “lobbyists” to make sure they’re following the law, she said. 

“So much of what affects low income people and other vulnerable people in New Hampshire is happening at the State House, but it's really essential for nonprofits in the human services sector to be there,” Mattson Dustin said. “With a truly citizen legislature like the one that we have in New Hampshire, our lawmakers are relying incredibly heavily on lobbyists to provide them with reliable information about their constituents, and you simply can't do that if you don't have a way of communicating effectively with legislators.”

Lobbying practices among nonprofits are every bit as varied as the private sector. While some groups like New Hampshire Legal Assistance rely on their own staff to do the bulk of their lobbying work, others like New Futures enlist help from established firms, whose lobbyists often enjoy long-standing relationships with top lawmakers and state agency officials. 

While New Futures has long participated in lobbying on substance misuse and prevention, in recent years they absorbed the work of several other organizations working on other policy issues. That includes New Hampshire Kids Count, New Hampshire Voices For Health and the Investing in Communities Initiative. In recent years, New Futures has played a role in debates over paid family leave and full-day kindergarten access, in addition to matters related to drug and alcohol policy. As their scope of policy priorities grew, so too has the group’s lobbying presence. 

“While we have issue area experts that are registered lobbyists who are tracking certain pieces of legislation that fall under certain categories, we can't be everywhere all the time,” said New Futures President Michele Merritt.

More outside clients turning their focus on N.H.

While local nonprofit and human services organizations are becoming more active in lobbying, they’re hardly alone. NHPR’s review of lobbying registrations dating back to 2012 showed a growth in the  number of out-of-state clients taking an interest in shaping New Hampshire public policy. 

This year’s lobbying registrations showed roughly 220 clients registered to an address outside New Hampshire, compared to roughly 250 with an in-state address. In 2012, in-state clients outnumbered out-of-state clients by a much wider margin: About 280 in-state to 190 out-of-state. 

That shift reflects the greater attention national lobbying interests are paying to state-level policy, as they find Washington politics harder to navigate, said James Monahan, president of The Dupont Group, one of the State House’s most prominent lobbying firms. The Dupont Group’s clients include local ones like the New Hampshire Community Behavioral Health Association and Elliot Health System, as well as national players like Apple, NextEra Energy and Deloitte.

“I think as Congress is becoming more dysfunctional, people are saying, ‘Well fine, instead of passing one law in Washington, we'll pass 50 laws in each state,’ ” said Monahan, who’s been lobbying in Concord for more than two decades. 

Bruce Berke, who runs Sheehan Phinney Capitol Group, can also vouch for that trend. For the last two years, his lobbying firm has maintained the longest roster of clients in Concord, a list that includes groups representing local police chiefs and land surveyors alongside national corporations like Verizon and Equifax. This year, about one-third of Berke’s clients are based outside New Hampshire.

While Berke agrees the presence of national interests has been heightened in recent years, he thinks this is actually part of a larger trend that dates back to the 1980s. That’s when the New Hampshire Legislature moved from biennial to annual sessions — offering more opportunities for outside interests to get involved in state policy debates. At the same time, the federal government shifted a more policymaking power back to the states, paving the way for more companies or interest groups to shift their attention to state policy, as well.

“Our society, our way of life has become more complex, more involved,” Berke said. “And so that has led to more legislative and regulatory activity at the local level.”