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Climate

With States Leading on Climate Policy, New Tools Peer Into Lobbying ‘Black Box’

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Researchers at Brown University hope to turn climate action defeat into a win for state government transparency.

Brown’s Climate and Development Lab this month unveiled HowDoTheyLobby.org, a new searchable online database of influence-peddling in state capitals. A first-of-its-kind tool, it allows users to dig into who’s pushing and who’s opposing legislation in 17 states.

The website tracks 17 million positions taken by lobbyists on state legislation going back as far as 25 years, and includes a network analysis tool that allows researchers to visualize coalitions and lobbying foes. It took years for students and research fellows to develop the algorithms and scrape the data from government websites. Their faculty leader, environmental studies professor J. Timmons Roberts, said the inspiration for the project was the failed battle to get carbon pricing legislation passed in Rhode Island from 2015 to 2020, an effort many Brown students participated in.

“That thing got killed. It just got squashed,” Roberts recalled. To understand why, students first began compiling information on who was lobbying and giving hearing testimony in Rhode Island. They later expanded the effort to other states and to issues beyond climate.

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The Brown lab’s website is not the only new resource for following the influence game in state legislatures. The government watchdog group OpenSecrets earlier this year rolled out a new searchable federal and state lobbying database, which allows users to track spending on lobbying across 19 states over the past decade. Last year, companies and organizations spent at least $1.4 billion in lobbying state governments, OpenSecrets found. That sum is far less than the record $4.2 billion spent on federal lobbying in 2023, but OpenSecrets said it is certainly an underestimate. 

Both the Brown researchers and the OpenSecrets team included fewer than half of states in their databases, primarily because so few states make lobbying information available in accessible formats. As a result, citizens have little understanding of who is shaping some of the nation’s most important decision-making, particularly on environmental policy, where states have been in the forefront.

Regulation of fracking and the setting of renewable energy targets are just two examples of the tough climate-related issues being tackled by states rather than through federal action, said Neal Woods, a political science professor at the University of South Carolina who has written extensively on state environmental policy. “Due to the inaction at the federal level,” he said, “states have really had to take the lead in developing policies to address modern environmental challenges.” 

Blue State Climate Stalemate

The failed effort to pass carbon pricing legislation in Rhode Island spanned the last years of President Barack Obama’s administration and the first years of President Donald Trump’s administration—a time when it became clear that no strong climate policy was coming out of Washington, D.C. 

With Democrats firmly in charge of the governor’s office and both houses of the Legislature since 2013, climate action advocates saw Rhode Island as an ideal test ground for carbon pricing legislation—a market-based approach economists have long favored for driving down demand for fossil fuel. The Legislature had already shown its concern about climate change, passing the Resilient Rhode Island Act in 2014, which established an executive committee to address increasing threats, especially along the state’s 400 miles of vulnerable coastline.

One version of the carbon pricing plan, the Energize Rhode Island bill introduced in 2017, would have placed an escalating fee on fossil fuels consumed in the state starting at $15 per ton, the equivalent of 13 cents per gallon of gasoline. Seventy-five percent of the money would have been returned to Rhode Island residents in the form of dividends, while the remaining 25 percent would have gone to clean energy projects. 

Then-Gov. Gina Raimondo, the current U.S. Secretary of Commerce, voiced support for the concept, but it faced strong opposition from Chamber of Commerce affiliates, the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, a pro-business advocacy group, and oil distributors. The bill never made it out of committee.

“I realized we really didn’t understand who we were up against,” Roberts said.

Students in the Climate and Development Lab set out to make a systematic study of who was for and who was against the bills. Calling themselves “denial detectives,” they would go to individual legislative committees and ask staffers for testimony records, he recalled. Some records were never saved, while others were filed away in the State Archives. Roberts said students spent hours scanning testimony into their database. “Even creating a list of who were the groups that had testified against climate action and clean energy legislation was really a valuable tool for [non-governmental organizations] in Rhode Island,” he said.

The researchers eventually expanded their work beyond Rhode Island, a job that required building a different software program to sift through and extract data for each state. Having done all that work, they compiled information on all legislation—not just climate. “I think the biggest challenge is that every state is just different,” said Trevor Culhane, a senior research assistant at the Brown lab who helped lead the work. “Many states just don’t report the kind of data we want in terms of who is showing up in support of or against different bills. They just say there is no information online about that.”

OpenSecrets faced similar challenges trying to compile data on lobbying spending. Previously known as the Center for Responsive Politics, OpenSecrets has long been a go-to website for information on federal lobbying. Soon after the group’s 2021 merger with a state-focused watchdog group, the National Institute on Money in Politics, it began tackling the challenge of following lobbying money in state capitals. 

“Seemingly minor bureaucratic decisions affect the public transparency of a lot of this information,” said Sarah Bryner, OpenSecrets’ director of research and strategy. “When are registrations filed? To what degree do they have to disclose financial contracts? How much detail do they have to disclose?”

At OpenSecrets, it’s possible to search for who has been lobbying on specific bills in Congress, but not all states provide such detail. “Drawing comparisons and connections between state clients and federal clients is a challenge, and one that we haven’t fully mastered,” Bryner said.

Flying Under the Radar

Because of the lack of transparency, interest groups can fly under the radar in pushing for state legislation that has national impact. One group that has been in the forefront of that strategy is the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, funded by corporations and right-leaning groups, including those in the petrochemical billionaire Koch family’s nonprofit network.

“They test legislation in certain states where they know that it will pass and then sort of copy that and paste it into other states,” Bryner said. “That can be a very viable way to get your influence spread nationally, because it can be easier in a lot of states—particularly ones [under the control of one party]—to pass a piece of legislation than it is at the federal level.”

For example, Texas in 2021 was one of the first states to pass an ALEC-backed law to restrict the state from doing business with financial firms that use so-called “environmental, social and governance (ESG)” factors in their investment decision-making. Proponents of such legislation deride such considerations as “woke capitalism,” and the title of the Texas law, targeting financial firms “that boycott energy companies” made clear that lawmakers were seeking to discourage financial firms from getting rid of their investments in fossil fuels.

A search of the HowDoTheyLobby database reveals that the proponents of the Texas anti-ESG law were an ALEC-member advocacy group, the Texas Public Policy Institute, along with Texas oil, gas and electricity companies. And the OpenSecrets state and federal lobbying site shows that such energy and natural resources companies have spent $238.7 million on lobbying in Texas between 2015 and 2023—far and away the top sector spending to influence policy in the state.

ALEC has since crafted model anti-ESG legislation and it or similar bills have been enacted in 17 states beyond Texas, after a burst of lawmaking in 2023, according to tracking by the law firm Ropes & Gray. But it’s not easy to see who the proponents were or how much they’ve been spending. Only three of those states—Florida, Kansas and Montana—had enough available lobbying information to be in HowDoTheyLobby, and their laws were too recent to be included in the database, which currently only covers through 2022. Only Florida and Montana are among the 20 states for which OpenSecrets has been able to obtain lobbying spending data.

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Woods said researchers have been eager to get a better picture of lobbying of state legislatures not only to understand what is blocking climate policy in the United States, but to see what alliances have come together to enact effective climate policy. Observers often attribute environmental policy differences between states to partisanship—which Woods sees as important, but not the full answer. He notes that a Republican legislature and governor, Rick Perry, enacted the 2005 legislation that put Texas on track to its long reign as the nation’s #1 wind energy state. And as students in Rhode Island learned during the carbon pricing battle, a Democratic governor and legislature is no guarantee of climate policy success.

The HowDoTheyLobby database and OpenSecrets’ state lobbying tool attempt to provide centralized platforms for citizens to study what’s working and what’s not working in the extremely decentralized system—state government—where de facto national policy is so often being made.

“Although we know that state activity is really important, we haven’t had a really clear sense of the actual mechanics of how policy is getting made,” Woods said. “This has really been a black box, and these efforts will help us kind of unlock that black box and see what’s inside.”

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