Remember that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark when Indiana Jones faces off against a fierce-looking Arab who is wielding a nasty-looking saber and advancing toward Indiana, and then Indiana coolly pulls a gun and just shoots the guy? Well, never bring a knife to a gunfight.
But that’s essentially what the environmental community did in its face-off with the gas drilling industry in fight over House Bill 1950 which is now Act 13, the dreadful drilling bill. John Micek reports in Capitol Ideas that the drillers spent a whopping $1.3 million lobbying the state legislature during the first quarter of 2012 when the debate over the severance tax, local control and environmental protections was at its height. The environmental community spent $51,484. For every lobbying dollar the environmental groups put on the table, the drillers laid down $25.
Theoretically, effective organizing can out-maneuver money. The Capitol Ideas piece has this analysis “The lopsided totals also work to the environmentalists’ advantage because they “can use them to portray how uneven the playing field is,” said Christopher Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. “It’s hard, when you’re so vastly outspent, to be able to provide the same influence,” he said. “But it’s not impossible if you have good arguments and can leverage your resources to get the public to line up in agreement with you.”
That really didn’t work out for them. The environmental community did a great job of getting its message out – polls taken at the time showed that around 70 percent of the voters supported a severance tax. Most of the lobbying done by the environmental groups was “indirect” lobbying – appeals to their members and the public to contact their legislators and urge support for the tax and greater environmental protection and opposition to removing local control over drilling. The public responded, and legislators were inundated with communications from their constituents supporting the environmental positions.
The hard, cold reality of cash trumped political theory in this case, as it usually does. All of this lobbying is perfectly legal, and the industry can spend all it wants to on lobbying. Most of the environmental groups, on the other hand, are constrained by IRS rules which limit their ability to lobby. They can spend only a small percentage of their resources on lobbying and their ability to do grassroots lobbying is especially restricted. The groups that can do unlimited lobbying do not have near the resources to effectively counter massive spending by the other side.
Of course, voters can do the most effective persuasion at the ballot box. But will they? Will any legislator lose his or her seat over a vote in favor of HB 1950? The drilling industry right now is betting that won’t happen and generously supplying its legislative supporters with campaign cash to keep them in office. Voters who didn’t like their legislators’ vote on the dreadful drilling bill can counter that money by touching the other candidate’s button on the ballot screen in November.
That’s the one message legislators will appreciate better than the lobbying money and campaign cash.