American government courses spend a lot of time on the checks and balances regarding the three branches of government — executive, legislative and judicial — but not much on the influential “fourth branch” — lobbyists.

Iowa’s much beloved/detested new commercial-grade pyrotechnics law (also known as fireworks) didn’t suddenly happen because legislators found the common good lacked celebratory explosives.

It just so happens fireworks companies significantly increased their lobbying efforts, doling $133,000 in 2017 — up from $83,000 in 2016 — to successfully press the issue.

A Des Moines Register analysis of lobbying in Iowa found 943 groups paid lobbyists $20.4 million during the legislative year that ended June 30 — about $1.5 million more than in fiscal year 2016.

They had increased incentive to “lobby up” with Republicans controlling both the executive and legislative branches, adding the Senate during the 2016 elections. In fact, 123 more organizations entered the fray for FY2017, spending $1.1 million.

The average expense for a lobbyist was $21,645. They also spent $325,976 on events for legislators.

Pro-business lobbyists worked their magic as Republican legislators eviscerated home rule for cities and counties by eliminating minimum wage increases passed in Polk, Johnson, Linn, Wapello and Lee counties. In addition, collective bargaining rights for government employees (aside from public safety) were eviscerated and workmen’s compensation benefits reined in.

They also got a lot of bags for their bucks.

The counterintuitive-named American Progressive Bag Alliance spent $25,000 on lobbyists to stop cities and counties from implementing a ban on plastic bags, which was considered for environmental reasons in Iowa City, Dubuque and Marshall County. The bags are banned in 132 U.S. cities, California and Hawaii, and numerous countries, including China.

While insurance companies want people to use the lowest-cost drugs possible until proven ineffective — known as “fail-first” — pharmaceutical companies outbid them to limit that practice. Merck and Pfizer spent a combined $545,000. Wellmark (Blue Cross Blue Shield) spent $191,972.

And you wonder why drugs aren’t competitively priced?

While President Trump and Republicans tout deregulation, the truth is many regulations exist to protect companies from competition. Take Altria (Philip Morris and U.S. Smokeless Tobacco and more), which spent $172,701 on lobbyists who won a regulation regarding the sale of e-cigarettes and “alternative nicotine products.”

Templeton Rye Spirits can now pour samples for customers at its expanded facility in Templeton, which includes a museum, after investing $108,014 in lobbyists for the first time. Previously, breweries could offer samples, but distilleries couldn’t. Go figure.

“You can’t imagine having someone come up and doing a tour of a ($26 million) facility and then not being able to do a tasting,” Jane Knutson, Templeton’s chief financial officer, told the Register. “So we were very proactive in trying to get the law changed.”

All told, the alcohol industry spent $231,000 on lobbyists.

The Iowa Hospital Association paid 10 lobbyists $265,800, while the Iowa Medical Association paid $204,759, spurred by Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act. They ranked second and third among individual lobbyists.

The hospital group, in particular, has issues with former Gov. Terry Branstad’s privatization of Medicaid, which caused payments to providers to be delayed and, in many cases, decreased. The Mercy Health Network was engaged in a dispute with Ameri-Health Caritas that threatened payments before being resolved in June. Mercy, which includes Wheaton Franciscan medical facilities in Waterloo-Cedar Falls, spent $156,000 on lobbyists.

Taxpayers footed the bill for some expensive lobbying efforts with government agencies fearful of losing their footing or intent on making inroads. Included in the top 10 individual rankings were:

No. 1 — Iowa Association of Community Colleges, $289,598.

No. 5 — Iowa League of Cities, $181,543.

No. 6 — Iowa Board of Regents, $176,214.

No. 9 — Iowa Economic Development Authority, $171,000.

The community colleges, according to MJ Dolan, the association’s execution director, get the least amount of funding per pupil of all the public schools while focusing on workforce development issues.

The League of Cities was a loser on home rule, but that’s a nationwide trend. Rural-dominated Republican statehouses — reversing their traditional position on the sanctity of local control — have been thwarting actions by progressive cities.

The economic development agency has lobbied legislators to provide more incentives to lure prospective businesses.

While 10 states ban using state funds for lobbying, the Register reported 49 Iowa offices and organizations spend an average of $29,654 on such efforts.

The process puts the lie to the Schoolhouse Rock video, “How a Bill Becomes a Law,” with the song “I’m Just a Bill,” about laws being initiated by constituents presenting ideas to their representatives. The absence of lobbyists — who drive the legislative agenda — makes it more fairy tale than fact.

Follow the money instead.


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