At least $6.5 million dollars was spent on lobbying during the state’s 2019 legislative session. That’s according to the spending reports that groups trying to influence state lawmakers are legally required to file.
Montana Public Radio dug into the reports, which this year got harder for the public to make sense of.
They document everything from how much lobbyists got paid, to when interest groups picked up the tab for a steak dinner or drinks with a lawmaker, or gifted them things like Bobcat football tickets.
In the past, Montana’s commissioners of political practices have devoted a lot of staff time to translating the paper forms lobbyists are required to file into a single electronic document, which the public or the press could then search and sort.
But this year, Political Practices Commissioner Jeff Mangan, who was appointed in 2017, chose to not require his staff to do that.
“It’s not their jobs to input, or data input, information for the lobbyists,” Mangan said.
Mangan said doing so took too much staff time. Time needed to run the compliance side of the office and work through political complaints.
Both lobbyists and government watchdog groups say Montana’s lobbying disclosure laws are better than most other states. But, Denise Roth Barber, managing director at the National Institute on Money in State Politics in Helena, says the lack of consistent electronic filing is a weakness.
“In Montana, for somebody like the average person or a reporter, for them to want to know how much was spent, they cannot go and find a digital file and easily access that information," Roth Barber said. "They have to open up all these reports, monthly reports, filed by all of these clients who have filed on paper. And that is 1950s technology.”
Political Practices Commissioner Mangan says part of the problem is that, unlike campaign finance reports, Montana law does not require lobbyists to file their disclosure reports electronically.
He says it’s time lawmakers take a look at updating lobbying disclosure laws in the state that at times cause confusion about what information lobbyists do and don't disclose.
"I’ll probably spend the next couple of years of my tenure as commissioner of political practices asking the legislature to take a look at strengthening our lobbyist statutes," Mangan said.
But for now, the only way to get a big picture look at how much is being spent to lobby state lawmakers is to go online and view each individual scanned report.
Doing so for the last legislative session means going to the commissioner of political practices website and clicking the 2019 Legislative Session and Lobbying link. That gives two options for databases of lobbyist disclosure documents. One is electric and one is hard copy. There are hundreds of them. To get a big picture view of lobbyist spending, you'd have to open each up individually to see who spent how much and then process the data from each individual file.
It took me hours of going through the reports to arrive at the total amount lobbyists reported spending in 2019 session — that was around $6.5 million.
They show that the most spending was reported by PPL Services Corporation. The Pennsylvania-based utilities company that spun off some of its holdings into Talen Energy, which operates the Colstrip coal-fired power plant. It spent roughly $160,000.
Other big spenders, although not necessarily the biggest, included the Montana Association of Counties, at $106,000, the Montana School Boards Association at more than $82,000 and the Lehrerleut Hutterite Colonies, which spent nearly $78,000.
Making information like this easier for the public to access would require legislation or giving Montana’s political practices commissioner more funding.
That’s not likely, says Jen Hensley.
“It’s like asking foxes to adequately fund the construction of a well-made hen house," said Hensley, a lobbyist for PacificSource Health Plans. She also served briefly as Montana’s commissioner of political practices in 2011.
“When there’s not enough money to create these very complex online databases, something’s got to give,” she says.
Hensley says the legislature and Commissioner Mangan have decided to prioritize policing potentially shady election campaign and lobbying practices, and not spend a lot on a lobbyist spending database.
And, Hensley says, even a great spending database wouldn’t tell the whole story of how lobbyists influence how bills are written, become laws, or are killed. She says money can’t buy the kinds of personal relationships that can really count.
“It’s Sunday afternoon at the ballgame or Tuesday night at the brewery when you happen to run into somebody and say, ‘Oh hey, about this, x,y and z.’ It’s where these passing conversations happen that much of the real quality work gets done.”
Hensley says it’s hard to account for those interactions in lobbying disclosure forms.
Nor does she think they necessarily should. To her, Montana’s lobbying disclosure laws hit a sweet spot between giving the public information about what lobbyists are doing and allowing them the flexibility to work.
And, she says, if lawmakers decide they want tougher regulations, they don’t operate in a vacuum.
“Quite frankly, when you’re trying to regulate and change the system of lobbyists you have to know that, lobbyists are better than anybody at how to get policy killed," Hensley said. "So if you don’t have the lobbyists on board with it, good luck.”
It’s been nearly two decades since Montana significantly changed its lobbying laws. Political Practices Commissioner Jeff Mangan said during this year’s legislative session he hoped lawmakers would look at the issue during the interim.
Lawmakers have not indicated that they will.
View the full data used for this story here.