Lobbyists Spent $5.8 Million at 2015 Montana Legislature

Lobbying spending in 2015 remained at about the same level as it was over the last eight years

By ALISON NOON, Associated Press

HELENA — Lobbyists have spent at least $5.8 million to influence Montana lawmakers and the issues they discussed this year.

Preliminary data from the Commissioner of Political Practices released Thursday showed lobbyist finances in 2015 remained at about the same level as the past eight years, though some individual firms stepped up their soliciting game.

The Montana Association of Realtors topped the list, spending $237,660 — the most ever recorded by a single entity lobbying the Legislature and $100,000 more than it spent in 2013.

Realtors President Ryan Swinney said the American Association of Realtors chipped in $50,000 to help the Montana chapter oppose a new law that will disclose prices paid for homes.

“I think it just goes to show the value of the realty association and what we do to protect homeownership,” Swinney said. “We do this selflessly; no homeowner comes to us and says ‘Lobby on behalf of this or in opposition to this.’ ”

The organization also spent time and money opposing a bill to shorten land reappraisal cycles and supporting various other property and water laws.

A water agreement that was decades in the making to settle claims on and around the Flathead Indian Reservation also drew considerable lobbying efforts before it was approved and signed by the governor in April.

The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, which typically does not rank among top lobbyists, came in third this year with expenditures totaling $133,849 in support of the water compact. The tribes spent $46,786 in 2013, when a previous version of the water agreement failed in the Legislature.

“We lost two years ago,” Robert McDonald, a spokesman for the tribes, said. “We thought we needed more help, so we invested in a full-time lobbyist dedicated to getting the water compact passed.”

The tribes hired Mark Baker and tasked him with educating legislators about the complex issue, McDonald said.

The Flathead Joint Board of Control spent $51,169 opposing the compact. The board, composed of farmers and ranchers on the reservation, argued that irrigation water could decrease under tribal management.

Absent from the lobbying records is Farmers and Ranchers for Montana, an organization that advertised in favor of the compact throughout the session.

Flathead County Republican Party Chairman Jayson Peters filed a complaint with the commissioner’s office in April claiming that the organization, Baker and the tribes failed to disclose their grassroots lobbying activities.

The commissioner had not acted on the complaint as of Thursday.

The 2015 lobbying expense total will increase slightly when final numbers are released. They were not available by Thursday evening as originally expected.

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