Home News and Features Lobbyists, Growing in Numbers, Gear Up as Legislators Return to Montpelier

Lobbyists, Growing in Numbers, Gear Up as Legislators Return to Montpelier

With the start of the legislative session on Jan. 3, a total of 180 legislators came back to Montpelier, working at their jobs but also boosting business for merchants, restaurant owners, and those who rent rooms to legislators. This year the Greenway Institute, which is buying several buildings from the Vermont College of Fine Arts, has joined those renting rooms to lawmakers.

The start of the year not only marks the return of legislators, it also means the return of lobbyists, scores of whom flock to the Statehouse each day when the legislature is in session during the winter and spring. And there seem to be more of them every year.

Indeed, the number of lobbyists registered with the Vermont Secretary of State has been growing for decades. In a Vermont Public story dated Feb. 20, 2018, Bob Kinzel reported that the number of registered Vermont lobbyists had risen from 63 in 1969, to 152 in 1982, and to 452 in 2018. Today the count stands at 581, according to the Secretary of State’s website, marking an 822% increase since 1969, even as the number of legislators has stayed constant.

Why the big increase? Veteran lobbyist Chuck Storrow, who retired from the Montpelier firm of Leonine Public Affairs in 2022, pointed to one factor: “It reflects the fact that society is getting more complex and the legislature is trying to be involved in a wide variety of issues.”

Another possible factor is that the number of Vermont nonprofits backing various causes has risen over the years. Staff members who lobby for nonprofits have to register just like lobbyists representing businesses or business associations.

The increase may also have been boosted by an uptick in out-of-state lobbyists, who may or may not ever come to the Statehouse in a particular year, but may be contacting legislators or state officials. Among the big national companies or organizations currently represented by out-of-state lobbyists registered in Vermont are AirBnB, AARP, AT&T, Walmart, UPS, and the NRA.

But most lobbyists are local, and they include some well-known residents of Montpelier: Mayor Jack McCullough is registered as a lobbyist for Vermont Legal Aid, District 1 City Councilor Lauren Hierl is registered to lobby for the Vermont Natural Resources Council and Vermont Conservation Voters, and former Onion River Sports owner Andrew Brewer lobbies for many businesses and associations on behalf of his employer, the law firm of Downs Rachlin Martin.

The Secretary of State maintains an online “Photobook” that includes all registered lobbyists, their photos, and who they represent. The 2023–2024 Photobook can be found at tinyurl.com/ye7n9ehv.

It doesn’t take much to qualify as a lobbyist and thus be required to register as one. Under Vermont law, a lobbyist is a person “who received or is entitled to receive, either by employment or contract, $500 or more in monetary or in-kind compensation in any calendar year for engaging in lobbying, either personally or through his or her agents, or a person who expends more than $500 on lobbying in any calendar year.”

Vermont lobbyists are said to serve as important information resources for Vermont legislators, who have no personal staff. While that may be true, the legislature does have its own staff, which has also grown substantially over the years.

Storrow, a 1982 Vermont Law School graduate, served as a summer intern for what was then called the Legislative Council in 1980. He recalls there were only four lawyers employed then: Bill Russell, Michael Slater, Al Boright, and Peter Bluhm. Today the legislature employs 17 lawyers in what is now called the Office of Legislative Counsel. 

The legislature has other staff as well, including committee assistants who work during the session, editors and proofreaders, the Office of Legislative Information Technology, and the 15 members of the Joint Fiscal Office, which was created in 1973 to provide non-partisan financial analysis to various committees.

Even with the growth in legislative staff, lobbyists are still said to be valued by most Vermont legislators, and in Vermont they have more access and perhaps more influence than lobbyists in bigger states.

“My sense is that in other states committee meetings and public testimony are often just going through the motions,” Storrow said. “The real results are preordained from back-room conversations and leadership deciding things. There is some of that here, but in Vermont you can still ‘move the needle’ by going in and testifying.”

The increase in lobbyists over the years may have contributed to one fact of life in the Statehouse: finding a seat in certain committee rooms to watch proceedings has become more challenging at times as lobbyists jockey with members of the press, state officials, and citizens for a close-up look at what committees are doing and saying. 

However, one relatively recent legislative feature has reduced the need to actually be in the room or even in Montpelier. Today, all committee meetings, both current and past, are available on YouTube. Find details here: legislature.vermont.gov/committee/streaming/