Lobbyist spending tops $8.4 million in Kentucky legislature

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — In just three months, companies and special interest groups spent more than $8.4 million trying to influence Kentucky lawmakers, the third straight year lobbying spending has broken records in the Bluegrass State.

But some of the biggest spenders had little to show for their efforts as lawmakers either passed laws they opposed or did not act on legislation they supported.

Spending totals were released this week by the Legislative Ethics Commission covering the first three months of 2018. Of the 60 days lawmakers were in session, just two days were in April.

The top three spenders were all focused on one issue: cigarette taxes. At 60 cents per pack, Kentucky had one of the lowest cigarette taxes in the country. That coupled with both the highest smoking rate and the highest cancer rate in the country.

Groups like the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce and the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky asked lawmakers to raise the tax by $1 per pack. Together, those two groups spent $270,293 on lobbying. They argued the tax increase would save lives by discouraging smoking.

But Altria, the parent company of tobacco giant Phillip Morris USA, spent a whopping $332,000. That's more than double the amount spent by any other group. The company had history on its side. For decades, Kentucky was one of the top tobacco producing states, and lawmakers were hesitant to raises taxes on one of the state's key economic drivers.

Lawmakers eventually agreed to raise taxes by 50 cents per pack. Republican Gov. Matt Bevin vetoed the increase, but lawmakers voted to override him.

"We didn't know until the end that we would be successful. And so it was certainly not a slam dunk," said Kentucky Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Dave Adkisson, whose parents grew up on tobacco farms. "Kentucky has severe health problems, and this is one step toward doing something about it."

The campaign got a boost from the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky, which spent most of its money on an advertising campaign targeting lawmakers and their constituents. It included billboards in Frankfort for lawmakers to see every day, plus ads in their districts urging people to call and ask them to raise the cigarette tax.

"We are the cancer capital of the nation. I think that message really rang through," said Bonnie Hackbarth, spokeswoman for the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.

Altria spokesman Brian May said the company engaged lawmakers on a number of cigarette tax proposals on behalf of retailers, growers and "adult tobacco consumers." He said the company "transparently reported" its spending.

Other big spenders included utility companies LG&E and KU Energy who spent $116,858 urging lawmakers to pass legislation including House Bill 227. That bill would have let utility companies pay less for excess energy generated from customers who have solar panels installed at their homes. Solar companies opposed the bill, and lawmakers ultimately did not pass it.

Lawmakers also passed House Bill 191 over the objection of 1-800-Contacts, which spent $70,906 trying to block it. The bill established new rules for companies that offer eye exams on mobile phones. The company argued it would make it difficult to do business in Kentucky. The bill passed the legislature with zero "no" votes and Bevin signed it into law in March.

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