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Lobbying in the KY legislature sets another record. Who’s spending the most?

Lexington Herald-Leader
Another month, another record broken by special interest groups lobbying the Kentucky legislature on a variety of issues.

Last year set the record for most spending in January and February, but 2024 topped it yet again. In all, 799 groups large and small spent almost $6.1 million in an attempt to influence legislation in January and February.

The biggest spender so far this year, like many others, is the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce. Having spent $105,000, the largest business organization in the state has lobbied on the bill legalizing and regulating self-driving vehicles in Kentucky, as well as budget bills that inch the state closer to no income tax.

Last year set many lobbying records due to the fight between gaming interests.

The “gray machine” industry aligned against horse racing interests — the industry is buoyed by its own slot-like games called “historical horse racing” machines — in an unsuccessful bid to stop passage of a bill that banned the machines from Kentucky.

There’s not one single issue driving lobbyist spending the same way this year.

However, many groups have entered the fold on House Bill 5, a Republican-backed bill that would toughen much of the state’s criminal code, adding new penalties for several groups including the homeless and violent offenders, who would go to prison for the rest of their lives after “three strikes.”

The bill has elicited criticism and spending from lobbying groups both progressive and conservative.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky has been one of the leading voices against the bill. The group ranks as a close second to the chamber in total spending at nearly $96,000.

Kate Miller, the group’s director of advocacy, said she has seen an influx of volunteers for their legislative efforts in large part because of interest in working to defeat or change House Bill 5.

“There’s this false narrative in the Kentucky General Assembly that they have somehow been tipping the balance in favor of defendants rights and that is not the case,” Miller said. “There has been very little activity related to what we would describe as ‘smart justice,’ and there has been a tremendous amount of activity over the years to create new crimes and increased penalties for existing crime.”

Miller told the Herald-Leader the group is often able to “modestly impact” bills it opposes. However, its efforts on House Bill 5 haven’t really made a dent, she said.

The Coalition for the Homeless has been a vocal opponent of the bill’s proposal to add penalties for “unlawful camping.” It spent $23,301 in the first two months of the session.

The Texas Public Policy Foundation – working in Kentucky as its affiliate “Smart on Crime” – is a conservative organization, unlike the ACLU. Still, it railed against the bill, spending $17,500 doing so.

The wide-ranging scope of House Bill 5 also drew lobbying interests that were focused on specific pieces of the bill.

The Kentucky Justice Association, for instance, lobbied against only one part of the bill that had to do with the group it represents: Plaintiff’s attorneys. In all, the organization has spent $50,000 to lobby the legislature in January and February.

Chief Executive Officer Maresa Fawns worked against a provision in House Bill 5 that could have given shopkeepers total immunity to use force to “prevent the escape of the person detained or the loss of goods for sale.”

Fawns and her colleagues pushed for the addition of one word, which made the justification of shopkeepers’ use of force a more justiciable question.

“We just asked that their conduct had to be ‘reasonable’ before they got immunity. So that was that was put in the bill,” Fawns said. “… If someone wants immunity, we just ask that they be reasonable in their actions.”

Fawns is a capitol lobbying corps veteran, working there for 34 years — 32 at her current employer. Her mother, the late Judy Taylor, is recognized as Frankfort’s first female lobbyist and, in a rare move, a celebration of life was held for her in the House chamber late last year.

When asked why the spending in Frankfort keeps going up year-over-year, Fawns said she wasn’t sure if it’s an increase in the value of lobbying or just a matter of inflation. Hotel and travel costs, she said, have reliably increased since the pandemic.

Other big & notable spenders

Utility companies helped boost the total spending figure, too.

Louisville Gas & Electric/Kentucky Utilities spent $41,352 lobbying the legislature. The company listed many bills in its report to the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission, but has been most publicly vocal on House Bill 349, which puts an extra barrier on utility companies seeking to retire fossil fuel power plants.

Pro-coal organizations have pushed hard for the bill while utility companies like Kentucky Utilities have said it will cause them to raise customer rates. Duke Energy, a Cincinnati-based company with a strong presence in Northern Kentucky, also spent $31,642 and lobbied against the bill.

With the “child care cliff” being a major discussion point, as pandemic-era federal dollars supporting the industry have dried up, Save the Children Action Network has spent $36,148 lobbying the legislature on that issue. The group aligns somewhat with the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, which lobbies for Sen. Danny Carroll’s, R-Benton, Senate Bill 203, from the standpoint of workforce retention.

House Bill 7, which would legalize and regulate self-driving vehicles, has also garnered lobbying attention.

On the side of legalization is the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which spent $28,781 in two months, meanwhile the Kentucky State AFL-CIO, a union group, is against the bill and has spent about $15,000 in the first two months. The Autonomous Vehicle Industry Association also spent $13,050, ostensibly in support of House Bill 7.

RAI Services, owned by tobacco company Reynolds America, spent $20,711 over the first two months, lobbying for House Bill 11 which is aimed at cracking down on certain vape sales. The company is also serving ads on social media regarding the bill.

Short-term rental giant AirBnB spent $12,500 lobbying, with the only bill listed on its filing being Senate Bill 234, which would create statewide preemption on local governments limiting short-term rentals within their boundaries.

The state’s two-year budget, a massive spending bill the legislature has to pass, has attracted several lobbying interests.

BlueOvalSK, the record-breaking $5.8 billion joint venture between South Korean company SK On and Ford Motor Company, spent about $23,300 in the first two months of the year, primarily on the state budget. In the Senate’s latest version of its budget proposal, the state is sending $100 million to Hardin and Warren counties to support infrastructure there; BlueOvalSK is located in Hardin County.

Both Louisville & Jefferson County Metro Government as well as Louisville & Jefferson County Metropolitan Sewer spent just under $18,000 each. Both have lobbied on the state budget bills; the latest version of the Senate budget proposal contains $100 million to the city of Louisville for various downtown redevelopment projects.

The Cincinnati/Northern KY International Airport spent $18,352 in the first two months, focusing on airport economic development and infrastructure funding. It ended up with $25 million in the latest budget proposal.

The Kentucky Cattlemen’s Association, which is based in Lexington, spent $14,400 specifically for “ag innovation center funding,” according to the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission documents. In the Senate budget, it would receive $21.9 million in state funds for a livestock research facility at a University of Kentucky research farm in Woodford County.

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