Inside the world of business lobbying in Olympia
OLYMPIA, Wash. – In the world of state legislatures, there’s a powerful breed of players who normally shun the spotlight. They prefer to work behind the scenes to influence policy outcomes. We’re talking about business lobbyists. Inside this often hidden world, you’ll meet two of the most successful corporate contract lobbyists in the Washington state capitol. And learn some of their tricks of the trade.
Most days Steve Gano wears a suit and tie and tries not to attract much attention. But at a recent legislative hearing in Olympia he became the star distraction. Gano sat down to testify in a Miller beer polo shirt. That’s when the ribbing from lawmakers began.
“Steve, you forgot your tie”
“You look like you came off the back nine.”
“This is beertender Bob here.”
After the laughter died down, Gano poured a can of beer into a glass to demonstrate the level of taxation on a barrel of beer in Washington.
Gano was trying to make the case to lawmakers that they shouldn’t extend a surcharge on beer that’s about to expire. Later, in an interview, he explained the beer gimmick to me.
“Every once in a while you just got to do something that makes your argument stand out a little bit. I don’t do that very often, but it seemed to have been effective.”
Normally, Gano prefers to press his case in closed door meetings with individual state lawmakers. Fifteen minutes here. Fifteen minutes there.
Gano started out nearly 30 years ago as a student lobbyist. Today, he and his wife operate one of the top paid lobbying firms in Washington. Last year they reported compensation of nearly $870000.
“We represent only business and a lot of the businesses we represent everyone is familiar with.”
Besides Miller beer, Gano’s client list includes Wal Mart, Premera Blue Cross, AT&T, Shell Oil and Wells Fargo Bank.
Gano allowed me rare access as he buttonholed legislators outside the House chambers recently. Things were hectic as a do-or-die deadline approached. Gano sent a note into Democratic State Representative Chris Hurst who came out to huddle.
“Telemedicine," Gano said. "Have you guys caucused on the telemedicine bill?”
“No," Hurst replied. "It’s on the list for today I think though.”
The conversation took all of two minutes. Gano was able to make his case, but he also picked up some valuable intel.
“By him telling me it hasn’t come up in caucus yet it gives me an idea, okay, they’re probably getting ready to. I still have time to kind of influence people’s opinion about this bill.”
Gano says sometimes he can’t stop a bill from passing, but he can help “bruise it up.” That means it passes out of one chamber with a lot of “no” votes.
In the crush outside the House, I find another business lobbyist. Greg Hanon works for the petroleum industry, Costco, McDonalds and others. He says at a crunch time like this, the trick is to apply just the right amount of pressure on lawmakers.
“So it’s a delicate balance of wanting to encourage them to consider your bill and hoping it will happen," Hanon explains. "So you can’t be too aggressive but you have to be just enough to make sure they remember your bill in line.”
Hanon, who also started out as a student lobbyist, is now one of the top paid members of what’s called the Third House in Olympia. He billed more than $700,000 last year. During a lull in the action, we meet in the duplex Hanon owns just a stone’s throw from the Capitol. He says lobbying for business interests is by-and-large a game of defense.
“There’s a very good reason for that," Hanon says. "For the most part businesses are competitors in the marketplace. It’s hard for businesses to unite around common theme or message.”
But Hanon says they can unite against a common challenge -- think taxes and regulations.
Case in point. Washington House Democrats recently proposed an increase in the state’s hazardous substances tax to help pay for transportation. That tax is largely paid by oil companies. Hanon – on behalf of the petroleum industry - quickly put out a one-page briefing paper that said the higher tax would make Washington’s five oil refineries less competitive and could result in higher gas prices at the pump.
“So what I was trying to do was make sure at the same time the proposal was being unveiled that we had the rebuttal information immediately for legislators to consider as they looked at the package and then weighed where they were going to be on the proposal.”
Both Hanon and Steve Gano say they’re proud to work for companies that contribute to the state’s economic vitality. Back in the scrum outside the Washington House chambers is Nick Federici – a longtime health care and human services lobbyist. He often finds himself at odds with the business community. Remember that beer tax? Federici testified in favor of extending it.
Nonetheless, he has a grudging respect for his lobbying adversaries.
“They do a good job for their clients, they are very smart, and they’re very strategic. Do I agree with their view of the world? Absolutely not.”
Federici says the legislative process is sort of like running hurdles on a track.
“When you just say no you can kneecap somebody at any one of those various hurdles whereas those of us who are always trying to move the ball forward have to clear all those hurdles without penalty.”
Even so, Steve Gano can point to plenty of examples where grassroots lobbying efforts did clear the hurdles despite the best efforts of corporate lobbyists like him. In his breast pocket Gano carries with him a stack of long, narrow cards. Printed on each one are the names of all 147 Washington legislators. Vote cards they’re called. One for each bill he’s tracking.
“You need 25 in the Senate and 50 in the House," Gano explains. "And you just start going through it and when you get enough to know that you’re winning you go to the sponsor of the bill and say ‘look you don’t have enough votes’ or you do.”
At the end of the day, says Gano, his job is to count votes one at a time.