Who lobbied most in 2019?
By Matt Bittle via Delaware State News
DOVER — Turns out health care is a big industry in Delaware. Who knew?
The four entities that lobbied the General Assembly and state agencies the most in 2019 are all health-related, with the Delaware Healthcare Association easily surpassing the others to claim the title of most active lobbying organization.
Of course, there is no official recognition of that sort, but the state does maintain a database tracking those whose job it is to influence lawmakers.
Lobbyists, defined as people who are paid to attempt to sway state officials or have spent money in a bid to do so, 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 five days of the lobbying contact or within five days after the legislation has been introduced in the General
Assembly or within five 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.”
While lobbyists are a very common sight at Legislative Hall, they’re far from the only people who can weigh in on bills. Members of the public can and do provide input on legislation, mostly by reaching out to individual lawmakers or speaking in committee hearings, without being considered lobbyists and thus held to the same standards.
Some state agencies have their own lobbyists, typically known as legislative affairs personnel or policy advisers, but they are not required to register or file reports.
While some observers (and a few politicians, although not many in Delaware) decry lobbying as legal bribery, there’s a reason it’s a thriving industry: For a business or nonprofit that’s looking to influence the fate of a bill, there’s no better way to get involved than to hire one of the lobbyists for whom Legislative Hall is almost like a second home.
Many organizations, ranging from Verizon to the Delaware Brewers Guild, have a presence in the state capitol, and many legislators heavily value the opinions of certain lobbyists or outside organizations. Some lobbyists work solely for one company, nonprofit or union, while others are employed by government relations firms or law offices and handle a host of clients.
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.
There’s a reason it’s a common refrain in Dover that if you want to know what’s really going on, you probably should talk to a lobbyist.
“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,” Rhett Ruggerio of Ruggerio Willson & Associates, one of Delaware’s most prominent government relations firms, relayed in a 2018 interview.
Breaking it down
The Public Integrity Commission’s database offers a wealth of information that can help tell the story of the 2019 legislative session, which concluded in the early morning hours of July 1.
In total, about 200 entities and 330 people are included in the data. The Delaware Code makes clear that, in essence, any conversation between a registered lobbyist and select state officials involving legislation (or a proposed regulation, in the case of state agencies) must be reported to the Public Integrity Commission within five days.
Such reports do not have to contain who the lobbyist spoke to or what position he or she took but must include details on the bill in question, the date and who the lobbyist was working on behalf of.
As of Friday, lobbyists had reported spending $57,429.38 on state officials this year, with about $49,500 of that classified as food and refreshments. The travel category totaled approximately $2,700, while spending on gifts came to almost $2,600.
A still-standing 2009 executive order issued by then Gov. Jack Markell prohibits high-ranking executive branch officials from accepting gifts from lobbyists. The Public Integrity Commission requires elected officials to report any gift of more than $250.
No one entity lobbied more in 2019 than the Delaware Healthcare Association — by far. As of Aug. 1, the organization, which represents hospitals from Seaford to Hockessin, had reported 419 lobbying acts. The nonprofit mostly relied on three employees but did use an outside agent as well.
“Anything that would affect the operation of organization and business entities are also areas we keep an eye on,” association President Wayne Smith said last year, noting the hospitals are the largest private-sector employer in the state.
Mr. Smith is one of the handful of lobbyists who formerly served in the legislature. Others include Bob Byrd, Bill Oberle, Roger Roy and Terry Spence. Mr. Byrd owns his own firm, while Mr. Oberle, Mr. Roy and Mr. Spence each have a few clients.
A 2014 law prohibits legislators from working as lobbyists within one year of leaving office, although it can hardly be called foolproof.
In second in terms of lobbying activity is the Medical Society of Delaware, which has sought to weigh in on proposals 221 times in 2019. Like the Healthcare Association, it used a mix of contract lobbyists and its own personnel.
Behind the Medical Society is Christiana Care Corp., which relied on contract lobbyists and outside lawyers to handle its business on 192 occasions. Fourth, just four instances behind, is the Delaware Association of Rehabilitation Facilities, also known as the Ability Network of Delaware. Only lobbyists from the firm Ruggerio Willson were active on its behalf.
Coming in fifth with 169 reported instances in which it sought to sway lawmakers is the Delaware Charter School Network. Like the Ability Network of Delaware, it relied solely on Ruggerio Willson.
Health care is an extremely broad field, as evidenced by the list of bills organizations were active on. The Delaware Healthcare Association, for instance, is reported as having lobbied on legislation to raise the minimum wage, ban abortion after 20 weeks, declare January 2019 Human Trafficking Awareness Month and legalize marijuana.
Surprisingly, the one piece of legislation that saw by far the most action was a seemingly innocuous bill updating a section of state law dealing with contractors, including creating a registry. In total, companies and business organizations like Comcast, Delaware Electric Cooperative and the State Chamber of Commerce weighed in 105 times on Senate Bill 95, which ultimately ended up passing as a substitute.
The only other bills to exceed 50 acts were Senate Bill 25, a successful measure raising the smoking age to 21; House Bill 110, a not-yet-passed proposal that would allow recreational marijuana; and House Bill 225, the budget, which became law.
All of the five busiest organizations mentioned above chimed in on the marijuana bill.
Three highly controversial gun bills that ended up dying in committee saw surprisingly little official lobbying — perhaps a result of how strong the grassroots response against the measures was.
The four individual lobbyists with the most work by this metric, the most reported instances of official lobbying activity, are all from Ruggerio Willson. The company’s clients include Comcast, Wilmington, the University of Delaware, the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware and Punkin Chunkin.
Mr. Ruggerio and Kim Willson, the firm’s namesakes, both previously worked for Democratic politicians and with the Democratic Party on campaigns, and its third employee, Verity Watson, is a former aide for the General Assembly’s Joint Legislative Oversight and Sunset Committee. The newest member of the firm, Tarik Zerrad, interned with Sen. Tom Carper.
Mr. Ruggerio, who struck out on his own in 2005 after working as the city of Wilmington’s lobbyist for five years, said business is primarily based on word of mouth, with clients typically approaching him.
“I always say it’s not rocket science, just working kind of hard,” he said last year.
The three next most active lobbyists come from The Byrd Group. In addition to Mr. Byrd, the firm employs his daughter, Rebecca, deputy legal counsel to a former governor, and Kim Gomes. Clients include Anheuser-Busch, Dover Downs, Bayhealth, Facebook and Delaware State University.
Rounding out the top 10 are Deborah Hamilton of Hamilton Goodman Partners and Christine Schiltz and James Nutter from the law firm of Parkowski, Guerke & Swayze.
The count for busiest lobbyists includes the same measure multiple times when necessary. Mr. Ruggerio, for instance, provided some measure of support or opposition to the marijuana legalization bill on behalf of the Chemical Industry Council of Delaware, the Delaware Association of Rehabilitation Facilities, the Delaware City Refining Company, the State Chamber of Commerce, Diamond Materials LLC and Chemours.
A couple of things are indispensable to being a good lobbyist. Perhaps foremost among them is patience.
“I tell people that you have to spend the time in Legislative Hall and you spend 12 hours to get the right 12 minutes,” Mr. Byrd said in a 2017 interview.