PORTLAND, Maine — If you seek to know who’s pushing Maine lawmakers to vote one way or the other, welcome to a tangle of spreadsheets and digital documents.

In one set of data, lobbyists get paid. In another, they work on certain legislative documents. The titles of those bills? They’re somewhere else.

For the 50 lobbying clients who spent the most in 2015, the Bangor Daily News took a dive into that web of information, linking together what those entities spent with the bills they sought to influence and what has, so far in this ongoing session, happened with those bills.

It’s an exercise the Maine Ethics Commission also is going through as it prepares for another update to its website that Jonathan Wayne, the commission’s executive director, said will bring “significant improvements in the next year.”

[tableau server=”public.tableau.com” workbook=”Mainestop-paidlobbyists2015″ view=”Lobbydash?:showVizHome=no” tabs=”no” toolbar=”yes” revert=”” refresh=”” linktarget=”” width=”100%” height=”635px”][/tableau]

The commission has hired the Indianapolis-based company InnovateMap for the work, which Wayne said “is a long-term project as well.”

Maine has a relative abundance of information about lobbying activity, albeit self-reported and unaudited. The key component of that is how much lobbyists reported getting paid. The key problem is presenting that information in a way that’s at all understandable.

“We get a good deal of information, and we would like it to be as accessible to the public as it can be,” Wayne said.

The project doesn’t involve changing what or how that information is disclosed, just how it’s presented.

Dollar for dollar

Lobbying makes up a substantial amount of influence on Maine lawmakers, measured in dollars. For the lobbying year from November 2014 to November 2015, more than 400 entities hired 229 lobbyists and spent $4.8 million, according to year-end disclosure reports.

That’s more than one-third the amount outside groups spent in Maine’s 2014 gubernatorial and legislative races.

The top 50 lobbying clients — 12 percent of the total — in 2015 supported about 44 percent of the lobbying spending, at $2.1 million.

[tableau server=”public.tableau.com” workbook=”Mainestop-paidlobbyists2015″ view=”Top50context?:showVizHome=no” tabs=”no” toolbar=”yes” revert=”” refresh=”” linktarget=”” width=”100%” height=”210px”][/tableau]

Not every state tracks those figures.

“Only about half of the states require that lobbyists report what they get paid,” said Peter Quist, research director at the Montana-based Institute on Money in State Politics, which compiles and analyzes state-level campaign finance reports.

Quist and his team have dealt with that data firsthand as they look to expand their own database offerings in the coming months to include lobbying disclosures for states that do provide compensation information.

“That lobbyist compensation is the key piece,” he said.

Wayne said the Maine commission’s upgrade focuses on clearer presentation and more searches of that financial information.

Some states only require lobbyists to report spending on lawmakers, for events or gifts given. Maine also requires lobbyists to report what they were paid for activities defined as direct or indirect lobbying.

Lawmakers don’t have to disclose certain meals or gifts worth less than $300, and strict interpretations of the disclosure law leaves room for lobbyists to omit some compensation from a client from state reports. In Wisconsin, lobbyists also disclose in general terms where they stood on a bill, whether for, against or neither.

But Maine’s gets better rankings for disclosure than most states. A review by the Sunlight Foundation last year gave Maine a ‘B’ — a 3 on a scale from -3 to 6 — for what it requires lobbyists to disclose.

“Only a few states have information about what bills a client is interested in,” Quist said.

And what is disclosed is revealing, if hard to find.

Connecting the dots

The spending is key, but just one piece of the puzzle that should be clear to the public on disclosure sites, Quist said.

“You want to know what each client is spending, who they’re paying and what they’re lobbying on,” Quist said. “Those three pieces need to be searchable and linked to the rest.”

For anyone researching lobbying influence on a particular law, the ethics commission’s website provides a start, but it doesn’t connect all of those dots.

Wayne said the commission may seek in its new website to have pages with more financial information about lobbying link directly to the legislative website, where someone could find information about the status of bills and related testimony.

The commission’s current lobbying search allows people to search for lobbying activity on a particular bill, showing which lobbyists reported working on that bill during a given session, but not the financial information.

There are multiple ways to review the results of putting those sources together.

By industry, the data shows the bulk of lobbying interest came from health care and natural resources. It’s a starting point to assess the result of that lobbying, for which high spending doesn’t necessarily mean results.

Aroostook Resources Inc., the J.D. Irving subsidiary seeking to open metallic mineral mining at Bald Mountain, was the year’s second-highest spender, putting $104,314 into lobbying primarily on three mining bills that died in the House or were shelved.

Penobscot Energy Recovery Co., the waste-to-energy facility in Orrington, was the year’s top spender. Four of six bills it lobbied on to encourage municipalities to recycle or dispose of their solid waste at a waste-to-energy facility died.

One to add waste energy to the state’s renewable portfolio standard, LD 273, and another draft to make a variety of changes to encourage recycling and open funding to the state’s three waste-to-energy facilities, LD 313, were carried over to the current session.

PERC’s was among the most focused lobbying efforts of the session, according to a BDN analysis.

[tableau server=”public.tableau.com” workbook=”Mainestop-paidlobbyists2015″ view=”Lobbyinginfluence?:showVizHome=no” tabs=”no” toolbar=”yes” revert=”” refresh=”” linktarget=”” width=”100%” height=”785px”][/tableau]

The big picture

The ethics commission’s website allows quick searches of lobbying on specific bills, but broader analysis of all lobbying activity in the state requires a bit more effort.

In general, Quist said, the more raw data, the better.

“Without that being downloadable, it really restricts the user to only answer any questions that they can see the answer to on one screen, which is basically this much was spent by this filer on this date,” Quist said.

On the campaign finance side, he said, Maine’s uncommon in providing easy access to those contribution and expenditure files.

On the lobbying side, that data gives a picture of the bills lobbied the hardest.

For the top 50 lobbying clients, that was Gov. Paul LePage’s budget, where 19 of the 50 clients put the attention of 25 different lobbyists.

[tableau server=”public.tableau.com” workbook=”Mainestop-paidlobbyists2015″ view=”Mostlobbied?:showVizHome=no” tabs=”no” toolbar=”yes” revert=”” refresh=”” linktarget=”” width=”100%” height=”635px”][/tableau]

Altogether, those entities lobbied on 982 different bills.

The bills that got the most attention after that reflect the infrequency of bills to make it into law, and the attention to bills that don’t necessarily make headlines.

The second most-lobbied bill, LD 810, passed into law with support from health care provider networks and drug giant Pfizer, allowing pharmacies more latitude in prescribing drugs in the interest of letting a person pick up each prescriptions at the same time.

Among the next six most-lobbied bills, five died and one was carried over. Others reflect the challenge of tracing influence from a bill’s star to its finish.

Two of the most lobbied bills elicited gubernatorial vetoes with different outcomes. One, LD 289, sought to loosen state law requiring physicians to first prescribe drugs deemed to be the least expensive effective option before turning to more costly drugs, a strategy for keeping down health care costs called “step therapy.”

The Maine Medical Association supported the bill, saying “step therapy” leaves some treatment decisions in the hands of insurance companies and not physicians.

Insurers opposed the bill, testifying against it, and health exchange co-op Maine Community Health Options reported spending at least $1,000 to lobby on the bill, including $1,600 to lobby the executive branch. The bill, in the same manner as a similar effort in the 126th Legislature, fell to a veto from LePage that was sustained.

Another bill proposed by Uber also was the focus of six of the top 50 lobbying clients, but it cleared a veto to set statewide rules for it and other ridesharing companies.

A different look

The lobbying information in Maine making possible policy making insights that are relatively rare from the available lobbying information, according to Quist, but he said there are still improvements states such as Maine can make.

That includes putting dates indicating the month in which certain lobbying was reported, to better enable tying certain lobbying efforts to the legislative process.

For the improvements ahead, Wayne said the ethics commission hopes to provide more information, clearly, in fewer clicks.

Darren Fishell

Darren is a Portland-based reporter for the Bangor Daily News writing about the Maine economy and business. He's interested in putting economic data in context and finding the stories behind the numbers.