Sugary Drink Industry Spent Heavily in Vt.
Montpelier — The state’s latest lobbyist reports show that the American Beverage Association spent the largest amount on lobbying by far — $553,000 on print and radio ads — in a fight earlier this year to scuttle a proposed tax on sugar-sweetened drinks, which was eventually defeated.
The reports, which provides a window into how much money lines the edges of many major legislative debates, reveals how much money special interests spent during the past three months.
From Jan. 1 to March 31, the group also paid $21,000 for its lobbyists in the Statehouse, chiefly veteran lobbyist Andrew MacLean of MacLean, Meehan & Rice. The Beverage Association of Vermont shelled out $31,900 for its lobbyists, who include MacLean and others from his firm.
MacLean, in an interview, said it was the biggest ad campaign he’s ever worked on during a single session, but noted at the same time that the battle over the sugar tax involved extremely high stakes for businesses.
“We felt that we were being singled out as the cause of the issue when the science specifically refutes that,” MacLean told said.
“If you look at the amount of the spending, while it’s large, it’s about 2 percent of what an annual tax bill would be,” he said. “That bill is almost as large as the payrolls of entire beverage companies that are part of the Beverage Association of Vermont.”
“Yes, it was a lot, but we felt that we weren’t able to get our message out in the Statehouse, and we felt that we had to do it in this way,” MacLean continued.
The beverage sugar tax came to an abrupt halt in a 6-5 House Ways and Means Committee vote, though it passed the House Health Care Committee 7-4.
Meanwhile, MacLean’s adversary and backer of a sugary drinks tax, Tina Zuk of the American Heart Association, spent about $6,200 on advertising backing that tax. Zuk accurately predicted back in March that the beverage industry would far outspend health care lobbyists on this issue — the ratio is almost 90 to 1 in advertising dollars.
Michael Sirotkin, a veteran Statehouse lobbyist, called the $553,000 spent by American Beverage Association surprising. “That sounds like a fairly significant amount of money for a fairly narrow issue,” he said.
In the death with dignity debate, Patient Choices at End of Life, which backs so-called “death with dignity” legislation, spent about $40,000 on ads. The Vermont Medical Society, which opposes that bill, spent nothing on ads, but paid $30,000 to its lobbyists.
Predictably enough, lobbying expenses track and underlie several legislative debates which have loomed large in past months. As marijuana decriminalization efforts continue, the Marijuana Policy Project spent about $10,000 in the past three months.
In other lobbying disclosures collected by the Secretary of State last Thursday:
■ The Vermont Association of Hospitals and Health Systems spent about $108,000 on lobbying expenses, and the Vermont State Employee Association spent about $92,500, the second and third highest lobbying spends, respectively.
■ The Service Employee International Union ($33,250), Vermont NEA ($31,358), and AFT Vermont ($19,317) together spent almost $84,000 on lobbying expenses over the past three months. Union legislation has been spotlighted this session, including bills allowing child-care providers, home health care workers, and deputy state’s attorneys to unionize. There was also a push to mandate agency fees.
■ The Vermont Public Interest Research Group, a non-partisan advocacy group, spent about $70,000 on lobbying expenses overall, more than the $47,281 conservative Super PAC Vermonters First spent during the same period. Vermonters First spent about $45,000 in advertising, likely mostly on political television ads they ran in late February.
The figures reported here only cover Jan. 1 to March 31. Spending figures from April 1 onward is scheduled to be released on July 25. The state requires lobbyists to report their expenditures and pay three times a year, which has provoked some lawmakers, like House Health Care Committee Chair Mike Fisher, D-Lincoln, to call for more frequent disclosures, as more lobbyist cash filters into advertising in the heat of the legislative session.
Kevin Ellis, a communications specialist with KSE Partners, said lobbying figures within Vermont should be compared with other state capitals like Boston, Albany and Tallahassee, where lobbyists spend much more.
He added: “I frankly don’t think it’s a lot of money. If there are people that worry about some nefarious impact on legislators, I just think that sells the Legislature short. Legislators are smarter than people give them credit for, and they have stronger spines than people give them credit for.”