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Ky. Chamber and ACLU lead Frankfort lobbying spending in opening months of session

Ryan Van Velzer
/
KPR
Kentucky's state Capitol in Frankfort.

The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce still leads all groups in legislative lobbying spending, though organizations buying ads to oppose the “Safer Kentucky Act” and pharmaceutical bills closed the gap.

More than 700 businesses and organizations collectively spent $3.2 million to lobby the Kentucky General Assembly in February, bringing the two-month total to more than $6 million in the 2024 legislative session.

The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce led all lobbying spenders through the first two months, but was followed closely by the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, which led all groups in February due to ad spending in opposition to House Bill 5, the sweeping anti-crime bill dubbed the “Safer Kentucky Act.”

Friday was the deadline for employers of registered lobbyists to submit their February spending reports to the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission. The reports document what employers spent on lobbyists, advertising, consultants and events, as well as what bills and issues they tried to influence with those tools.

The $6.2 million spent on lobbying the legislature so far this session is slightly ahead of the pace from the first two months of 2023, which went on to break the annual spending record.

Among the groups to surge in lobbying spending in February were Kentuckians for the Commonwealth — a progressive group that spent more in Frankfort last month than it did in all of 2023 — and the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association, a trade association of pharmacy middlemen that led an ad campaign against a bill affecting its industry.

Here’s a closer look at some of the top lobbying spenders so far in the 2024 session, what they spent their money on and what legislation they were trying to steer to passage or stop in its tracks.

Kentucky and Louisville chambers maintain top spending positions

The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce spent more to lobby the legislature than any other group in January, and then spent slightly more than that in February.

The statewide business advocacy group reported $53,896 of spending last month and has now spent more than $105,000 during the session to sway legislators. Nearly all of those funds have been directed to its 14 registered lobbyists, who reported pushing for and against a few dozen bills.

Among the business-friendly bills pushed by the chamber were House Bill 7 to allow driverless vehicles on Kentucky roads by this summer and House Bill 136 to limit the power of Louisville’s air pollution regulatory agency. Both bills are expected to pass into law by the end of March.

Greater Louisville, Inc., the business chamber for the region, still ranks as the fourth-highest spender through February with $55,800 going to its seven lobbyists. The chambers began lobbying for House Bill 14 last month, which is a proposed constitutional amendment to give local governments more taxing authority. The legislation — which has fallen short of passage for many years — received two readings in the House last week, but has not received a committee hearing.

Ads push ACLU and pharmacy managers to top spenders

While the statewide chamber leads all spenders, the pacesetter is well below what it was from the 2023 session, when two groups battling over a bill to ban slots-like “skill games” from Kentucky stores and gas stations spent $600,000 on TV, radio and digital ads by the end of February.

While not spending nearly this amount, a few groups have stepped up to buy ads in February in the hopes of defeating legislation, placing them among the top spenders of the session.

One of these groups is the ACLU of Kentucky, which spent nearly $30,000 on statewide billboards, digital and radio ads to defeat the Safer Kentucky Act. Despite that effort, HB 5 has cleared both chambers and is expected to be sent to the governor within the next week.

Including its payments to 13 lobbyists — who also pushed against advancing bills to ban diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives in school — the ACLU spent $66,462 total in February, more than any other group. The ACLU spent $95,931 in the first two months of the session, second only to the Kentucky Chamber.

The top advertising spender in February was the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association, a trade group of pharmacy benefit managers that act as prescription drug insurance middlemen. The PCMA spent $35,600 on statewide digital ads and phone calls to “specific districts” to help defeat Senate Bill 188, a bill to add restrictions on pharmacy benefits managers in the hopes of helping independent pharmacies stay afloat financially and improving patients’ access to medications.

An amended version of SB 188 cleared a Senate committee last week by a unanimous vote, despite a lobbyist for PCMA testifying it could raise insurance premiums by as much as $25 a month. The group reported spending $51,693 to lobby the legislature through February, placing PCMA sixth among all groups.

Other notable advertising spenders included the socially conservative Family Foundation, which spent more than $8,000 on newspaper ads supporting House Bill 47 that could negate cities’ LGBTQ anti-discrimination ordinances in the name of protecting religious liberty, and House Bill 304 to expand laws targeting transgender students in public K-12 schools. HB 47 may clear the House this week, though HB 304 has not yet received a committee hearing.

Right-of-center Americans for Prosperity reported spending $8,000 of door hangers and digital ads in support of House Bills 203 and 204 to relax certificate of need requirements for new health care facilities — neither of which have received a committee hearing — while left-of-center think tank Kentucky Center for Economic Policy spent $7,000 on digital ads opposing HB 5 and supporting increased budget spending to lift teachers’ salaries.

KFTC expands Frankfort lobbying effort

Rising to third among lobbying spenders during the first two months of the session was Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a grassroots progressive advocacy group.

Despite reporting only $31,174 of lobbying spending in all of 2023, KFTC reported spending $58,231 in the past two months, with most of that going to the pay and expenses of 24 registered lobbyists in February.

The group reported lobbying for a constitutional amendment to expand voting rights for people who have completed a felony sentence, which the group has actively championed for the past two decades. They have also lobbied on nearly 50 bills, calling for increased budget spending and environmental protection.

Another relative newcomer to the list of top lobbying spenders is the Frankfort Plant Board, the city utility that provides electricity, water, cable and internet. Just as it did in January, the nonprofit utility reported another $4,435 spent on advertising to oppose Senate Bill 220 of GOP Sen. Gex Williams of Verona, in addition to another $9,875 to GOP public relations firm RunSwitch to aid that effort.

Williams originally proposed to force the utility to sell its telecommunications services, but then changed his bill to one that would force it to remit property taxes to the city and school district. The bill squeezed out of a Senate committee last week by a 6-5 vote, with the utility arguing it would result in a $3 million increase to ratepayers.

The Frankfort Plant Board has now spent nearly $50,000 through the first two months of the session, placing it ninth among all groups.

Hospitals, cities and energy

Among the other top 10 lobbying spenders is the Kentucky Hospital Association, whose $55,325 through February placed it fifth.

The hospital advocacy group reported lobbying for Senate Bill 27 to ensure pharmaceutical companies give hospitals prescription discounts under a federal program. The bill passed a Senate committee two weeks ago but has not cleared the full chamber.

The Kentucky Hospital Association also reported lobbying against HB 204, the bill to lift certificate of need requirements for health care facilities, and House Bill 199 to allow freestanding birthing centers. Though HB 199 cleared a House committee two weeks ago, it has since stalled.

Also rounding out the top 10 were the Kentucky Justice Association, an organization of trial attorneys, and the Kentucky League of Cities, an advocacy group for local governments, which each spent roughly $50,000 on lobbying through February.

The East Kentucky Power Cooperative placed tenth in spending with $45,891 in the first two months. The nonprofit co-op was not the only electric utility provider to spend big on lobbying the legislature, as Louisville Gas & Electric and Kentucky Utilities, Duke Energy and the Kentucky Association of Electric Cooperatives are all in the top 20.

Booze, coal and oil

Organizations also have to report what they spent on events that legislators are invited to attend, such as luncheons and dinners where lobbyists are sure to mingle and hold court.

The largest spender on such events in February was Sazerac, with the Louisville-based bourbon and liquor maker spending $9,429 for a legislator reception at the Buffalo Trace distillery in Frankfort.

The Kentucky Coal Association and Kentucky Oil and Gas Association each spent $6,400 on a reception for legislators at The Foundry, an event space in Frankfort.

Other notables include the Kentucky League of Cities’ “City Night” event for legislators at the Capitol Plaza Hotel ($3,491) and the Kentucky Justice Association spending $5,775 on a joint event with the Kentucky Distilleries Association.

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the amount of lobbying spending the Kentuckians for the Commonwealth spent in 2023.

State government and politics reporting is supported in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Joe is the enterprise statehouse reporter for Kentucky Public Radio, a collaboration including Louisville Public Media, WEKU-Richmond, WKU Public Radio and WKMS-Murray. Email Joe at jsonka@lpm.org.