Lobbyists pushed hard on key bills of 149th General Assembly

DOVER — From the middle of January to the beginning of July, they’re a regular sight at Legislative Hall, milling around in the hallways and chatting with lawmakers in the House and Senate chambers.

For better or for worse, lobbyists play a vital role in the legislative process, even in a state as small as Delaware.

The representatives of various companies and causes range from contracted lobbyists to union representatives to employees of multibillion dollar businesses, and while it’s a relatively small and tight-knit field, lobbyists can have substantial input in which bills progress and which fail.

It’s a relatively common refrain in Legislative Hall that if you want to know what’s going on, you should talk to some of the state’s biggest lobbyists.

“Legislators don’t have time to read every bill … They’re relying on us, they’re relying on the media, they’re relying on staff members,” said Rhett Ruggerio of Ruggerio Willson & Associates, one of Delaware’s most powerful government relations firms.

(Delaware State News/Matt Bittle) Employees of Ruggerio Willson, one of Delaware’s most well-known government relations firms, filed more disclosure reports in 2017 and 2018 than any other lobbyist.

Lobbyists must register with the state’s Public Integrity Commission, file quarterly financial reports and disclose every business-related interaction with an elected official. Filing false information or failing to register can lead to being charged with a misdemeanor and barred from lobbying.

“All lobbyists must report all lobbying activity on legislation and administrative regulations within 5 days of the lobbying contact or within 5 days after the legislation has been introduced in the General Assembly or within 5 days after the administrative regulation has been adopted,” the commission’s website states. “You do not have to report whether you lobbied for or against legislation or administrative regulation.”

Not everyone who seeks to provide input on legislation is defined as a lobbyist and held to the same standards. Every session day, Delawareans come to Legislative Hall to seek out lawmakers or offer comments on bills in committee hearings.

A lobbyist, in contrast, is defined as someone who is paid to attempt to influence lawmakers, acts as a representative of someone who has a vested interest in legislation or spends money on food, gifts, travel or other amenities for legislators.

Some state agencies have their own lobbyists, typically known as legislative affairs personnel or by a similar title, but they are not required to register or file reports.

The database maintained by the Public Integrity Commission offers a wealth of information that can help tell the story of the 149th General Assembly, which concluded earlier this month.

In total, 6,496 disclosure reports were filed between Dec. 20, 2016, and July 17 of this year by 156 lobbyists representing 324 clients. Although government relations firms are active on hundreds of bills, their lobbyists do so on behalf of businesses or organizations and thus are recorded as representing other entities.

The three most active companies or organizations in lobbying during the 149th General Assembly are all health-related, with the Delaware Healthcare Association leading the way by reporting activity in 469 instances in 2017 and 2018.

The organization, which represents hospitals from Seaford to Hockessin, dwarfed the runner-up Christiana Care Corporation, which indicated 302 acts of lobbying. It was followed by the Medical Society, which lobbied 277 times.

Rounding out the top five are two education groups, the Delaware Charter School Network and the Delaware State Education Association, which filed 228 and 225 reports, respectively.

(Delaware State News/Matt Bittle) The Delaware Healthcare Association, which maintains an office in Dover, was the most active entity in lobbying during the 149th General Assembly.

The businesses, nonprofits and trade unions that seek to sway lawmakers have a strong influence in Legislative Hall, with many legislators heavily valuing the opinion of groups like DSEA and the State Chamber of Commerce.

Some of those entities have their own registered lobbyists. All three lobbyists used by the Delaware Healthcare Association, for instance, are employees of the organization. Meanwhile, many companies turn to lobbyists for hire who work for government relations firms, law offices or are self-employed.

Still others use a mix: The University of Delaware, to name one, employs two individuals regularly stationed at Legislative Hall to provide input on certain proposals, but it also utilized Ruggerio Willson.

Successful lobbyists generally have been around for a long time and have strong connections that predate their time as government relations experts. Some of Delaware’s most prominent lobbyists, fixtures in Legislative Hall, have worked for elected officials, political parties or state agencies, while a few actually held elected office before.

The single most active lobbyist (by this measure, anyway) was Verity Watson of Ruggerio Willson. Ms. Watson, who formerly worked for the General Assembly’s Division of Research, filed 451 disclosure reports.

The firm’s namesakes, Mr. Ruggerio and Kim Willson, each lobbied 439 times. The two previously worked for Democratic politicians and with the Democratic Party on campaigns.

Following those three members of Ruggerio Willson with 393 instances apiece are Bob Byrd and Kim Gomes, both of The Byrd Group. Mr. Byrd, whose bio on the company’s website calls him “a Jedi Master of government arts,” served two terms in the state House of Representatives in the 1970s.

The tally includes the same individual weighing in on the same bill multiple times in some instances and the same company using several lobbyists to attempt to sway lawmakers on a single piece of legislation. Lisa Schieffert of the Delaware Healthcare Association filed three disclosure reports for a bill relating to dental hygienists, while two members of Hamilton Goodman Partners weighed in on a gun control bill on behalf of Christiana Care Corporation, for example.

While the five most active entities lobbied mostly on measures right up their alleys, both health care and education are broad fields. The Delaware Healthcare Association, for instance, lobbied on legislation related to minimum wage, gun control and hate crimes.

“Anything that would affect the operation of organization and business entities are also areas we keep an eye on,” Delaware Healthcare Association President Wayne Smith said, noting the hospitals are the largest private-sector employer in the state.

Mr. Smith is a veteran of Legislative Hall, having spent 16 years as a state representative before resigning in 2007 to take his current position with the association.

Deciding what positions the group will take, he said, is a collaborative process.

“We basically feed legislation that could have an impact on health care out to the policy committee, see if they’re concerned or not, what changes they might want to see through amendments and then we take that information to the board, which makes the final decision,” he said.

Although individual lobbyists generally spend no more than a few thousand dollars wooing legislators, lobbyists collectively expended about $115,000 in the scope of their duties during the 149th General Assembly. Approximately $95,000 of that is classified as food and refreshments.

Seven bills were the subject of at least 50 disclosure reports. While few, if any, bills drew more attention from the public than proposals to legalize marijuana and impose greater limits around firearms, none of those measures were among the seven.

Instead, the seven most-lobbied-upon bills revolved around state spending. The governor’s two recommended budget bills, the bond bill he suggested last year, the budget passed this year and the grant-in-aid measure approved in 2017 all saw at least 73 acts of lobbying. Rounding out the top seven were a proposal to raise the minimum wage and a bill to strengthen consumer protection against cybersecurity breaches.

Predictably, giants like AT&T, Amazon and Facebook weighed in on the latter measure, while a wide range of businesses and nonprofits took stances on increasing the wage floor.

Verizon was the only company to offer input on all seven bills.

Mr. Ruggerio, who struck out on his own in 2005 after working as Wilmington’s in-house lobbyist for five years, said the industry has become “more professional” over the years.

Still, at least for him, business is primarily based on word of mouth, with clients typically approaching him rather than the other way around.

“I always say it’s not rocket science, just working kind of hard,” he said.

Reach staff writer Matt Bittle at mbittle@newszap.com

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