If you glance up at the balcony in the New Hampshire Senate chamber on the day of any big vote, you’ll see a crowd of lobbyists sitting shoulder to shoulder, carefully watching the outcome on behalf of their clients.
And if you turn to the campaign finance filings for the New Hampshire Senate, you’ll see many of the same names represented in that balcony — both lobbyists and their clients — listed as campaign donors. In fact, lobbying interests are among the most reliable sources of political fundraising for New Hampshire lawmakers.
An NHPR review of campaign fundraising reports over the most recent legislative session shows that donations from lobbying sources with a direct stake in the decisions made by state senators accounted for roughly half of all the money raised by those same senators’ re-election campaigns. The rate of reliance on lobbying money varied from senator to senator — from as little as 16 percent to 75 percent or more.
(Scroll down to see a breakdown of each senator's fundraising from lobbyists so far this cycle.)
In many cases, senators’ campaign fundraising reports reflected the intersection of money and influence inherent to State House lobbying. Candidates can, and often do, accept separate donations from lobbying firms, the lobbyists they employ and the clients they represent — in effect, magnifying their impact in legislative races.
All of this is legal under New Hampshire’s campaign finance laws. But current reporting regulations also make it difficult for regular citizens to gauge the role that lobbying interests play in funding state legislative campaigns.
In an effort to understand the role of lobbying money in those races, NHPR reviewed all of the campaign fundraising reports for the 22 incumbent State Senators seeking re-election, spanning from the beginning of 2017 through September 2018. We then cross-referenced those against the lobbying registrations maintained by the Secretary of State for those same years. We focused on the New Hampshire Senate, in particular, because it’s the chamber where the most significant policy battles tend to play out and where the presence of lobbyists is often felt most strongly.
Leading up to the September primary, New Hampshire lobbyists — men and women who earn a living trying to influence the votes of state lawmakers — gave more than $42,000 to help sitting senators get re-elected. Local lobbying firms donated a collective $133,155. And the companies, unions and other groups with a registered lobbying presence at the State House spent just shy of $500,000 in total.
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Both Democrats and Republicans rely on lobbying interests to fund their campaigns, and the most active lobbying firms have given uniformly to incumbent senators from both parties. Donations from Rath, Young and Pignatelli, The Dupont Group, Gallagher, Callahan & Gartrell and Legislative Solutions — among other big players in the local lobbying scene — show up in the campaign receipts of every senator running for re-election.
The same goes for donations from industries that carry serious lobbying clout in Concord. The state professional associations representing bankers, automobile dealers, realtors and hospitals donated to every senator. The state’s largest insurer, Anthem, and a Georgia-based company that deals in title loans, Select Management Resources, also gave money to everyone.
The senators who raised the most money from lobbying interests are also those who wield the most power at the State House. Senate President Chuck Morse tops the list (about $89,000), followed by Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley (about $56,000) and Senate Minority Leader Donna Soucy (also about $56,000). The same trio reported the largest fundraising totals for the primary campaign, with their contributions split roughly down the middle between lobbying and non-lobbying sources.
“I think [lobbyists] contribute to Senate campaigns for the same reasons that individuals do, which is to support people that have been supportive of their interests and hope that they continue to work for those interests in the body,” said Soucy, a Democrat from Manchester.
Senators who leaned the heaviest on lobbying source for fundraising tended to be those who raised the least money overall. Republican Sen. James Gray of Rochester reported about $23,000 in donations ahead of his primary, with about $18,000 — or about 80 percent — tied to lobbying interests.
“I don’t ask people to put extra money into my campaign once I’ve got enough money to run it,” Gray said, adding that he avoids asking constituents in his district for money because he knows many are already tight on cash. “If that means that money came from lobbyists, and they’re voting with their dollars that I am more likely than not, based on past performance, to be amenable to an issue that is important to them, that is certainly their prerogative to do.”
Gray, a first-term senator, said he relied less on lobbying sources to fund his first run for office in 2016, but that those donations have been quicker to come now that he’s built more working relationships with lobbyists and the groups they represent. Asked to explain some of his top donors, he said the answer was straightforward: the New Hampshire Realtors, which gave him about $2,000, likely did so because he’s the chair of the Senate’s Public and Municipal Affairs Committee; Pfizer, which gave him $1,000, likely did so because he’s on the Health and Human Services Committee. (Each of those donors gave to almost all other senators, as well.)
“Lobbyists are not the big bad wolf,” Gray said. “Lobbyists are an extension of the businesses who want their issues heard in Concord also. It is a way for them to be represented at the proper time during committee hearings and the legislative session.”
Other senators were more circumspect about the relationship between lobbying contributions and their roles at the State House.
“You can’t let money direct your governing,” said Sen. Kevin Cavanaugh, a Democrat from Manchester, who raised about $47,000 from lobbying sources ahead of the primary. At the same time, Cavanaugh said, “It’s tough, because you have to be able to compete, so you have to raise money.”
And lobbyists are one sure way to do that. Cavanaugh said he has a three-inch binder of donors he grudgingly works through to raise money for his campaign, and about half an inch of that is made up of lobbyists.
“It’s the way, I don’t want to say, business is done,” Cavanaugh said. “But that’s the way we do it.”
Indeed, one of the most time-honored — and bipartisan — traditions of New Hampshire politics is the post-legislative session fundraiser held at pubs or restaurants that are just steps away from the State House. Legislators from both parties said they usually hold at least one such fundraiser a year.
Sen. John Reagan, a Republican from Deerfield, said his venue of choice as of late has been Tandy’s Top Shelf — a restaurant just across the street from the State House — and lobbyists are always on the guest list. This year’s event shows up on Reagan’s fundraising report in the form of a burst of contributions, more than $6,000 in total, all on a single day, Feb. 20. Almost all of that money came from lobbying sources.
“You invite all of the lobbyists, because they hopefully have access to contributions from their firm or from their clients, and that’s why they all clump together on the same day — you collect the checks at the time of the event, and if you’re on the ball you get them all in the bank in two days,” Reagan said. “And I always send a thank you letter to everybody.”
Whether or not they embrace its role in their fundraising, all senators interviewed for this story were adamant that they were above the influence of lobbying money — saying, in one way or another, that their votes can’t be bought, and that their doors are open to anyone regardless of the last time they wrote out a campaign check.
“For me, quite honestly, it doesn't make a difference in terms of my vote — and I think people know that,” said Sen. Dan Feltes, a Democrat from Concord, who raised more than $28,375 from lobbying sources.
Sen. Sharon Carson, a Londonderry Republican, said lobbyists serve a practical role, too. With so many legislators and so few legislative staffers, she and her colleagues rely heavily on lobbyists as sources of reliable information on policy issues.
“Especially in the New Hampshire Senate, because we’re so small, we work very closely with lobbyists. We get to know them very closely, and I count some of them as friends,” said Carson, adding that some of those friendships date back to before her time in office.
At the same time, Carson said, “I define the relationship, not the lobbyist.”
There’s nothing in New Hampshire election law prohibiting donors who lobby at the State House from bankrolling the campaigns of the lawmakers voting on the bills they’re pushing.
Nor is there anything preventing a candidate from receiving campaign money from multiple, overlapping lobbying sources: Many senators’ fundraising reports show contributions from individual lobbyists, the firms that employ those lobbyists, and the clients they represent.
For example, Senate President Chuck Morse got $1,000 from the Concord-based lobbying firm Rath, Young and Pignatelli. He also got another $500 from a pair of Rath, Young and Pignatelli lobbyists and a combined $16,750 from individual Rath, Young and Pignatelli clients — companies like Eversource, Anthem, Comcast and RAI Services. In total, he received $18,250 from the firm, its lobbyists, and the clients it represents at the State House. Morse, like his colleagues, said this money has no bearing on his legislative votes.
“Let me be clear on this one, I think it's an easy question for me to answer: Not once have I seen a Democrat or a Republican colleague be influenced by a lobbyist or a contribution from a lobbyist,” Morse said. “The reality is, I think that's their right — they're out there lobbying for a cause, and they can do that, but I don't believe that any contribution to a senator reflects on how they vote on an issue.”
Some states — including California — prohibit contributions between lobbyists and the state officials they lobby. In Alaska, lobbyists can only contribute to candidates for whom they’re also eligible to vote.
Other states — like Iowa, Maine and Minnesota — prohibit donations from lobbyists while the Legislature is in session. (In Maine, that prohibition also extends to a "lobbyist associate, or lobbyist's client or employer.")
And then there’s Illinois, where state law bans almost all political fundraising in the county where its State House is located while the Legislature is in session — unless it’s a fundraiser for an official who represents that county.
In New Hampshire, individual lobbyists are subject to the same contribution limits as any other individual donors giving to state-level campaigns. Firms and lobbying clients, similarly, are subject to the rules as other comparable campaign donors.
As part of their mandatory reporting requirements, individual lobbyists are supposed to file additional paperwork spelling out the donations they make to political candidates or committees. But that requirement doesn’t exist for lobbying firms — which actually account for a much larger share of legislative campaign donations.
The campaign donation disclosure forms filed by individual lobbyists are scattered throughout disparate pages on the Secretary of State’s website and aren’t linked at all to the fundraising reports filed by candidates, which can make it difficult to see how those donations add up over time or across the chamber as a whole.
And while all registered lobbyists are required to wear orange badges when they’re on the job at the State House — in theory, as a way to help the public (and lawmakers) distinguish lobbyists from everyone else wandering around the capitol — no similar distinction is required on legislators’ campaign finance filings.
Political candidates and their committees are supposed to list the occupation and employer of donors who give more than $100. But the law does not require candidates to signify whether their donors are registered lobbyists. Often, these donors are identified on campaign filings as “attorneys” or “government relations” professionals instead.
Senators, for their part, had mixed feelings about whether reforms were needed to protect against conflicts of interest in Concord.
Carson, the vice chair of the Legislative Ethics Committee, said it’s always valuable to debate additional changes to issues around campaign finance and transparency. But she also said the disclosure requirements in place already provide some level of accountability.
“I know people get upset,” she said, “but I think people need to take a step back and instead of talking about ‘this is corrupt’ or ‘this is something wrong,’ actually take a look at and say, ‘This is very clear so I can look at it, and if I have a problem I can call this senator and ask them directly, why you’re taking money from this entity?’ ”
Feltes, who has taken up several attempts at reforming the state’s campaign finance system in recent years with varying levels of success, said it may be helpful to make donations from lobbyists more clearly identifiable on campaign fundraising reports.
“For the public's confidence in the system — more disclosure, more transparency and closing some of those loopholes is a good idea,” he said.
For now, the public will have to keep doing its own homework if it wants to really understand the role of special interest money in its state legislative races.