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Statehouse Beat: Latest filings reveal lobbyist spending trends

Lobbyist spending during the critical January-April reporting period continues to creep upward, the latest filings with the state Ethics Commission shows.

Lobbyists spent $291,026 during that period this year, up 8.4 percent from the $268,441 spent during the same period in 2018, and up 26 percent from $230,686 spent in 2017.

Two trends stand out from the latest filings.

One, there has been an upsurge of lobbyists providing legislators with breakfast, ranging in scale from lobbyists providing doughnuts to Capitol offices to hosting elaborate buffets at downtown hotels. By my count, lobbyists listed 39 breakfasts during the regular session.

That includes some longstanding breakfast meetings, including the Charleston Chamber of Commerce’s Issues and Eggs Breakfast, and breakfast meetings hosted by the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, the Bioscience Association of West Virginia, Coalition of Retired Public Employees, Ohio Valley Construction Employers Council, and West Virginia Press Association.

The West Virginia Chamber of Commerce hosted three separate legislative briefing breakfasts downtown from Feb. 5-14, at a total cost of $3,915, with topics including education reform and tax and budget issues.

Additionally, a number of organizations and lobbyists provided breakfast for legislators at the Capitol, including RAI Services (five times), the Independent Oil and Gas Association of West Virginia, Ritchie Heath (doughnuts, twice), Retailers Association (March 8, in 15 separate locations), Megan Roskovensky (doughnuts and coffee, twice), West Virginia Health Right/Wheeling Health Right (the most elaborate on-site breakfast, at $2,186) and AARP/West Virginia (twice).

Additionally, Orion Strategies spent $447 to provide baked goods trays to nine Capitol locations over eight days.

There’s a certain logic to providing breakfasts, and not just because your mother told you it’s the most important meal of the day.

Lobbyists have pretty much saturated the market with free lunches during the 60-day sessions, and given the tendency for floor sessions to bloviate through lunch hour, hosting Capitol lunches is something of a crapshoot for lobbyists: That hour you had hoped to spend persuading legislators over lunch can easily turn into a grab-and-go, thanks for the grub, in a hurry.

•••

The second trend is that it appears “Big Coal” pulled out all the stops in pursuit of legislation to roll back the severance tax on steam coal from 5 percent to 3 percent, saving the industry an estimated $60 million a year.

The West Virginia Coal Association spent $9,994 to provide lunch for legislators at eight “coal caucuses” at the Capitol from Feb. 4 through March 4.

Additionally, Coal Association President Bill Raney spent $589 for lunch for the House Finance Committee on March 8. (Final passage vote on the tax cut in the House was March 9.)

Raney also spent a total of $1,495 on lunches for legislative staff, including the House and Senate clerks’ offices, Legislative Services, and the House sergeant-at-arms and doorkeepers, and $1,695 to take Senate secretaries to dinner at Fazio’s.

Coal Association Vice President Chris Hamilton also reported spending $1,573 to take the following legislators to dinner on six evenings at Bridge Road Bistro, Edgewood County Club, Fazio’s, and the Chop House:

Delegates Kelly (twice), Hott, Criss (four times), Harshbarger, Mandt (three times), Cadle, Anderson (twice), Householder (three times), Espinosa (twice), Higginbotham, Shott, Maynard, as well as Senate President Mitch Carmichael ($73 dinner at the Chop House).

Meanwhile, Murray Energy lobbyist Dennis Watson reported spending $1,068 on legislators’ meals, but did not identify restaurants by name. His guest list:

Delegates Espinosa (twice), Householder (twice), Barrett (thrice), Bates (thrice), Fluharty (thrice), Spounagle (thrice), Skaff (twice), Criss, Mandt, Diserio (twice), Tomblin and Cowles.

(Of those who broke bread with either Hamilton or Watson, only Bates, Cowles and Sponaugle voted against the severance tax cut.)

•••

By contrast, the hottest issue of the session, public education privatization, generated relatively little lobbyist spending.

Ben Beakes, representing online curriculum provider K12 Inc., reported taking Senate Education Chairwoman Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, and daughter, and then-House Education Chairman Danny Hamrick, R-Harrison, and wife, to dinner, at a cost of $47.28 each.

Michael Donnelly with the Home School Legal Defense Association, a Virginia-based advocacy organization “established to defend and advance the constitutional right of parents to direct the education of their children and to protect family freedoms” reported taking Rucker, and Sens. Michael Azinger, R-Wood, and Mark Maynard, R-Wayne, to dinner on Feb. 6, at a cost of $150 each. (That was the day after the omnibus education bill was introduced in the Senate.)

•••

Speaking of education, the timing of having to write this column on Friday for (print) publication on Sunday precludes inclusion of any profound commentary on the Senate’s resumption of the special session on Saturday.

However, I can offer this nugget: President Carmichael confirmed that he will be in Israel June 11-17 participating in an educational seminar sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation.

He stressed that the trip has nothing to do with the timing of the Senate’s resumption of the special session on Saturday (the House is not scheduled to resume the session until June 17, to coincide with regularly scheduled June interim meetings), stressing he has been consistent in calling for prompt action on the Student Success Act (the Senate leadership’s name for the new privatization bill).

“In the event that circumstances require my presence in West Virginia, I will cancel the trip,” Carmichael said, going on to stress that, “This event can certainly not be characterized as a vacation or pleasure trip.”

(That last comment was completely unsolicited, by the way.)

Of course, Speaker Roger Hanshaw is on the state trade mission to Japan and China through June 7, precluding the House from meeting this week.

•••

As a former senator, Herb Snyder has access to the Senate lounge off of Senate chambers, informally known as “Junior Rules,” a lounge area with access expressly limited to current and former members.

He was able to use that access to advantage, hosting a weekly series of seven lunches in the lounge between Jan. 23 and March 6, at a total cost of $1,280. He listed himself as lobbying for Shasta Corp., the home building company he owns.

•••

Perhaps the biggest bombshell among the lobbyists’ disclosures is that Ruth Lemmon — who has served as president of the West Virginia Automobile and Truck Dealers Association since January 1984, despite her impossibly ironic surname — submitted her lobbying termination notice effective May 15, as she drives off into the sunset of retirement.

•••

Danhill Construction of Gauley Bridge has been awarded a $149,791 contract to replace the small, closet-sized (32 inches wide, 37.5 inches deep) elevator in the governor’s mansion with an ADA compliant, wheelchair-accessible elevator that will be 42 inches wide and 54 inches deep.

Presumably, completion of the project will remove a major obstacle keeping the governor from residing at the mansion.

•••

Finally, an announcement by the new operators of what has been known for the past 52 years as the New River Train has been delayed until Monday.

Without revealing too much, a company that operates private railcar excursions and charters will be taking over operations of the fall rail excursions, which will operate under a new name. (I believe their clients include a number of the owners of private railcars that have been part of past New River Trains.)

The currently dormant Collis P. Huntington Railroad Historical Society will have no involvement in operations of the new train.

Plans are to follow the long-standing Huntington-to-Hinton route, with the same (or very close to same) schedule, including a roughly three-hour layover in Hinton to allow passengers to take part in Railroad Days festivities downtown.

While the New River Train made four runs on consecutive weekends in late October, plans are for the new train to have three runs on Oct. 25, 26, 27, to eliminate the expense of storing railcars in the CSX railyard in Huntington during the week.

I gather that organizers of Railroad Days, who had been planning a train-less festival on Oct. 19-20, are happily rescheduling the event to coincide with the new leaf train runs.

That’s extremely good news for the festival, the city of Hinton, and for the charitable organizations for whom Railroad Days is a major fundraising event.

For the past several years, I’ve done a cheapo version of the leaf train, taking the Cardinal to and from Hinton, arriving before and departing after the New River Train. While there tends to be a nice crowd on Temple Street before the train arrives, it becomes shoulder-to-shoulder packed once the passengers make their way to the festival.

An official announcement is planned for Monday morning. All aboard!

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1220 or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.

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