Haines Chamber of Commerce urges the borough to contract a lobbyist

Haines Borough Public Safety Building. (File photo from KHNS)
Haines Borough Public Safety Building. (File photo from KHNS)

The Haines Chamber of Commerce is advocating for a lobbyist in Juneau this year. The borough had a lobbyist in 2017, but opted against continuing the service last year. The state deficit means there are limited funds to be had for local projects. Now the borough is trying to figure out the best way to represent its interests without overspending.

The legislative session begins next month in Juneau. In a letter, the Haines Chamber of Commerce recommended the Assembly pay for a lobbyist this year. They say it could help the businesses they represent.

“A lobbyist is expensive,” said Borough Manager Debra Schnabel. “I think that there’s absolute value in lobbying. The question of how much you want to pay and how you want to do it I think is debatable.”

Schnabel believes in having a presence in Juneau to represent the borough’s interests. So she’s drafting a memo to the assembly requesting funds for the mayor and the manager, which  is currently her position, to travel to Juneau more often. Her plan is less expensive than a contracted lobbyist.

“So the question is ‘Is there going to be money for capital projects this year?’ because it looks like the new administration is going to continue cut funding,” she said. “You you never know if it’s going to pay off to lobby or not. There might not be anything to lobby for!”

Schnabel says Haines needs state money for capital projects like the improvements at Portage Cove, the next phase of the sewer project, and the Lutak Dock. Haines had a contracted lobbyist through 2017, and Schnabel says it was successful and brought money into the borough.

Bill Thomas was a lobbyist for the Haines Borough in Juneau in 2016 and 2017, and in its letter the Chamber of Commerce is recommending hiring him again. Thomas has decades of lobbying experience and previously spent years as a legislator. He says there’s a difference between what the borough can do on its own and what a lobbyist can accomplish.

“If you and I walked into the building, people would come talk to me,” he said. “Why? Because I’ve had a presence in the building before as a former legislator.  You could go in there and you’d have to wait in line to talk to people.”

The difference is exposure and connections, according to Thomas.

“Having been there is the key thing,” he said. “It’s easier to have conversations in the hallway without having to make appointments. They never forget who you are.”

Thomas says he did not seek out the Chamber or the Borough, but that he is willing to lobby for Haines if asked. He says his rate is $45,ooo if hired before the legislative session starts and $65,000 if hired after the session starts. Schnabel is asking for $10,000 in travel funds and per diem money so the borough can lobby for itself.

The assembly voted not to fund a lobbyist for the 2018 legislative session. So far they do not have plans to contract a lobbyist for January 2019.

Tom Morphet sat on the assembly when it made the decision.

“Our experience was that it didn’t pay,” he said.

Morphet says that when the state has a deficit, a lobbyist isn’t worth the cost. “Not only was there no capital funds or new money to be procured from the legislature, [but] having the lobbyist didn’t spare us, didn’t save us, from losing our public health nurse office, losing our most of our forestry office, losing our counseling service, losing a state trooper service. ”

He says a lobbyist was a good idea when there was money to be had. But that isn’t the case any longer.

“Unless oil has shot up to 150 dollars a barrel, we’re going to be in the tightest situation we’ve ever been in in terms of state funding,” he said.

The state’s deficit is an estimated at $2 billion dollars.

The Haines Chamber of Commerce is closed until Jan. 2 and could not be reached for comment. The next Borough Assembly meeting is Jan. 8. The legislative session begins Jan. 15.

KHNS - Haines

KHNS is our partner station in Haines. KTOO collaborates with partners across the state to cover important news and to share stories with our audiences.

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