Spending by special interest groups lobbying lawmakers during the first part of the current legislative session is running well below last year’s pace, according to reports filed last week with the Hawaii State Ethics Commission.

The more than 200 interest groups with registered lobbyists reported spending a total of $832,808 during the period from Jan. 1 to Feb. 28.

That was 21 percent less than the $1,058,360 spent during the same two-month period a year ago, and 33 percent less than the $1,250,532 spent in 2013.

The numbers don’t suggest any reason for the decline in spending over the three-year period, although fewer groups filed lobbyist expenditure reports this year.

Meetings held at the Hawaii State Ethics Commission conference room.  19 nov 2014. photo Cory Lum.

Outside the Hawaii State Ethics Commission conference room.

There were 270 interest groups that filed lobbyist expenditure statements for the period covering the first two months of 2013, commission records show. That number climbed last year to 286, but dropped to 202 in the current year.

While the number of lobbying groups dropped, the average amount spent rose this year to $5,338, up from $4,899 a year ago.

Improved Access to Lobbyist Data

It is much easier to compile this kind of overview of lobbying activities than it used to be just a few years ago, thanks to an increasingly robust online reporting system implemented by the ethics commission.

The commission now uses the state’s data portal, data.hawaii.gov, to make its various types of documents readily available to the public. Lobbying reports include registration statements filed by individual lobbyists documenting their authorization to lobby on behalf of client organizations, as well as expenditure reports filed by organizations employing lobbyists. The commission also makes available expenditure statements filed by individual lobbyists, although these are of little use because the vast majority of these report no expenditures due to a quirk in disclosure requirements.

But even with better public access, it’s still a challenge to make sense of the numbers.

An Uneven Playing Field

There’s an obvious divide between those groups with the resources to hire lobbyists, and most of the rest of us. While there are a few public interest groups among the list of lobbying organizations, the overwhelming majority are more narrowly focused special interests, from multinational corporations to local companies, trade and business associations, unions, and large, politically influential nonprofits.

And among those groups fortunate enough to have registered lobbyists, spending is concentrated among a relative few.

During the first two months of 2015, just 12 of the more than 200 groups filing lobbyist expenditure reports accounted for more than one-third of total spending.

And the top 22 interest groups, just 11 percent of the total number, controlled over over half of all lobbying dollars.

The Top Spenders

Altria, the tobacco giant formerly known as Philip Morris, spent more on lobbying than any other group in the state for the second year in a row. It reported spending $50,531 lobbying during the two-month period, up slightly from last year’s $48,114 during the same period.

In addition to Philip Morris, Altria owns John Middleton Co, which produces cigars and pipe tobacco; U.S. Smokeless Tobacco Co; and Nu Mark LLC, which produces and markets e-cigarettes.
The Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii ranked second, reporting total expenditures of $34,102.28, a third less than Altria.

And Maui Memorial Medical Center ranked third, with $30,000 in lobbying expenses.
Corrections Corporation of America ($21,676) and Catamaran PBM of Illinois ($21,000) filled out the top five. Catamaran is a pharmacy benefits company formerly known as SXC Health Solutions.

Rank Organization Name Total Spent
1 Altria Client Services Inc. $50,531
2 Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii $34,102
3 Maui Memorial Medical Center $30,000
4 Corrections Corporation of America $21,677
5 Catamaran PBM of Illinois, Inc. $21,000
6 Kauai Island Utility Cooperative $20,952
7 American Resort Development Association $20,451
8 Move Oahu Forward $19,408
9 General Contractors Association of Hawaii $18,791
10 Express Scripts Holding Co. $18,649
11 University of Hawaii Foundation $17,500
12 Kamehameha Schools $16,160
13 Merck Sharp & Dohme Corp. and Its Affiliates $16,000
14 Chevron U.S.A., Inc. $15,000
15 Hawaii Government Employees Association (HGEA) $14,617
16 Healthcare Association of Hawaii $13,774
17 Hilton Worldwide $12,708
18 VISA, Inc. $12,500
19 Hawaiian Electric Company, Inc. $11,152
20 American Family Life Assurance Company of Columbus (AFLAC) $10,559
21 Marriott Vacations Wordwide Corporation $10,471
22 University of Hawaii Professional Assembly $10,471
23 Champlin Hawaii Wind Holdings, LLC $10,150
24 Hawaii Solar Energy Association $10,000
25 Blue Planet Foundation $9,750

Dominant Lobbying Firms

When it comes to the top lobbyists, power and influence are also concentrated at the top, with two local lobbying firms dominating the field.

Capitol Consultants of Hawaii, which bills itself as the largest lobbying entity in Hawaii, represents a combined 35 clients. Four lobbyists associated with the firm — George “Red” Morris, John Radcliffe, Bruce Coppa, and Celeste Nip — represent a mix of local and national companies, including Monsanto, the Motion Picture Association of America, FedEx, and the UH Professional Assembly, the faculty union.

Gary Slovin, Mihoko Ito, Mike Kido, and Tiffany Najima, with the law firm of Slovin and Ito, combine to represent 29 clients, including Dish Network and DirectTV, Shell Oil, McDonald’s, Microsoft, and Walgreens.

Lobbyist Name # of clients
Radcliffe, John H. 28
Slovin, Gary M. 28
Ito, Mihoko E. 27
Kido, Clarence M. 27
Morris, George A. 27
Yajima, Tiffany N. 27
Nip, Celeste Y.K. 24
Coppa, Bruce A. 23
Tsujimura, R. Brian 16
Toyofuku, Robert S. 15
Pavlicek, Melissa T. 13
Lyons, Timothy L. 9
Konkola, Lisa 8
Oshiro, Blake K. 7
Ching, Carleton K.L. 6
Okudara, Jon T. 6
Arakaki, Gordon M. 5
Ogawa, Robert T. 5
Piltz, Karen M. 5
Sabas, John R. 5
Eads, Chrystn K.A. 4
Gold, Joy Y. 4
Maluafiti, Alicia M. 4
Toguchi, Charles T. 4
Zirbel, Lauren S. 4

Even as these official data are easier to come by, it’s hard to know how reliable they are. In recent months, the ethics commission’s executive director, Les Kondo, has publicly expressed concern that ambiguities and loopholes in the state’s lobbyist law limit both the statute’s effectiveness and the commission’s enforcement powers.

The extent those issues distort the picture of lobbying that emerges from the commission’s public records remains an open question.

About the Author

  • Ian Lind
    Ian Lind is an award-winning investigative reporter and columnist who has been blogging daily for 15 years. He has also worked as a newsletter publisher, public interest advocate and lobbyist for Common Cause in Hawaii, peace educator, and legislative staffer. Lind is a lifelong resident of the islands. Read his blog here. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.