Lobbyists have spent more than $435,000 treating Kansas lawmakers and legislative staffers to dinner, drinks and basketball games during the first three months of 2017.
And their choices of who to take to dinner reflect the political shift that took place in November. Democrats, who gained seats in November, have seen their share of lobbyist spending increase this year.
The money spent through March surpasses the total lobbyist spending during the first three months of last year’s legislative session, which stood at about $366,000 after three months, and nearly equals the $472,000 lobbyists spent in Kansas for all 12 months of 2016, according to data from the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission.
The increased spending by lobbyists likely reflects the stakes of this year’s session.
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Lawmakers are still grappling with how to close a roughly $900 million budget gap for the next two years and how to satisfy a Kansas Supreme Court order for more funding for K-12 education, two challenges that necessitate some combination of tax increases or cuts to other areas of the state’s budget.
Republicans, who hold majorities in both the House and Senate, continue to be the primary beneficiaries of lobbyist spending, but the gap has narrowed and several Democrats are among the top recipients of lobbyist gifts this session.
Lobbyists spent $2,044 treating Rep. Adam Lusker, a Frontenac Democrat, to meals and other niceties through March. That’s nearly twice what Lusker received from lobbyists during the first three months of 2016 and $556 more than he received during the whole of the calendar year.
No Democrat ranked in the top 20 of lobbyist spending for 2016, but Lusker is second among all 165 lawmakers after the first three months of the legislative session. House Minority Leader Jim Ward, a Wichita Democrat, ranks No. 12 and Rep. Tim Hodge, a North Newton Democrat and freshman lawmaker, ranks No. 14.
“That means we have a little bit of a better voice than we once did,” Lusker said. “At least we’re getting talked to.”
Only one lawmaker, Rep. Erin Davis, an Olathe Republican, received more overall during the first three months with $2,105 in lobbyist spending.
Jason Watkins, the lobbyist for the Kansas Beer Wholesalers Association and Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce, said the increased spending on Democrats reflects their greater level of legislative influence this session.
“I also don’t think it’s any secret that the Democrats and the moderate Republicans have a majority voting bloc in both chambers. And so you’re going to talk to the folks who can form a majority bloc,” said Watkins, who has spent more than any other lobbyist through March with $20,656 going toward gifts and meals for lawmakers.
Watkins’ total spending through March is more than twice what he spent all last year. Watkins said that most of that money was used to educate lawmakers — at meals and lunches — as they considered whether to allow beer with higher alcohol content to be sold in Kansas grocery stores.
The bulk of lobbyist spending — roughly $305,000 — is unitemized and cannot be tied to a specific lawmaker, reflecting spending on banquets and cocktail hours where all lawmakers are invited.
Democrats received roughly 15 percent of the itemized spending during both the first three months and whole of 2016. Three months into 2017, their share of the itemized spending has increased to 25 percent after the party gained 13 seats in the Legislature in November.
Lawmakers’ ranking on the itemized spending list “is indicative of influence,” according to Rep. Stephanie Clayton, an Overland Park Republican.
Lusker joked that Rep. Jarrod Ousley, an Overland Park Democrat, beat him in lobbyist spending one month and he swore that would never happen again. Lusker, who owns a construction company, is the lone Democrat with a chairmanship, having been elected as chair of the Joint Committee on State Building Construction in January.
The top recipients on the list tend to hold leadership positions — House Speaker Ron Ryckman, an Olathe Republican, ranks No. 5 and Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, an Overland Park Republican, ranks No. 6 after three months — or hold large sway over a number of votes in the Legislature.
Asked why she was at the top of the spending list, Davis answered, “I have no idea, you’d have to ask the lobbyists.”
She said that her spots on three high-profile committees, the House budget, tax and commerce panels, may be the reason. Davis also said “there’s very little time during the work day to get stuff accomplished and talk about different issues,” and that dinners and lunches were “the nature of this business.”
“I would guess that the lobbyists are interested in, you know, having a good relationship with you,” Davis said. “This is a relationship business.”
Kansas limits the amount of money that lobbyists can spend on gifts to lawmakers at $100, but places no restriction on the amount that they can spend on food or alcohol for lawmakers, which makes up the bulk of the spending.
Congress passed ethics reforms in 2007 that placed restrictions on lobbyist spending on meals for lawmakers at the federal level after the Jack Abramoff scandal brought scrutiny to lavish free meals for legislators.
“Wining and dining has proven to be one of the more effective means of buying influence and it is a means that is only available to those who can afford it,” said Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, a group that advocates for greater ethics and transparency in government and helped craft the 2007 federal law.
“It’s a very effective means of influence-peddling,” Holman said. “You and I don’t have those means...The only people who do are the full-time well-paid lobbyists who throw money at the feet of lawmakers.”
Davis called lobbyist spending a non-story.
“I think I’d prefer my time in the media be spent on actual substantive issues than on, you know, how much has been spent on me,” she said
Lusker attributed his high ranking on the list to his role as the Democratic caucus’ policy chair.
Lusker called lobbyist dinners a chance for Democrats to “expand our influence” and present their agenda to influential GOP colleagues who are also present at the meal.
“The more we’re in front of folks, the more the needs of my constituents will be heard,” Lusker said. “That’s one thing. You sit back in the corner, nobody hears you. And nobody listens to you. And nobody wants to work with you.”
The Star’s Hunter Woodall contributed to this report.