The Lobbyists Had a Big 2021

January 3, 2023


  • Nearly $64 million was spent lobbying North Carolina’s state legislature in 2021
  • Spending on lobbying is very disproportionately from heavy-spending corporate interests
  • The total amount spent on lobbying the state legislature is rising rapidly year on year


In just the calendar year 2021, corporations, trade associations, municipalities and many other manner of organizations spent nearly $64 million on lobbying North Carolina state lawmakers. Of that total, a big chunk of overall spending – about a quarter – came from just a small handful of heavy-hitter organizations, who each spent $200,000 or more (sometimes significantly more) to influence legislation.

Today, Carolina Forward is publishing a complete, searchable record of all lobbying expenditures by entity in 2021, based on public records from the NC Secretary of State’s office, to shed much-needed light on this badly misunderstood (but massively influential) part of state government.

As you can see in these graphs, over half of all entities lobbying the North Carolina legislature (642 in all) spent relatively little money (under $50,000). But nearly a quarter of all spending ($15.3 million) came from just 43 entities, and roughly 43% came from just 133 entities (about 12% of the whole). Overall, spending on lobbying is driven very disproportionately by just a small number of groups - and that amount is increasing quickly. (More on that later.)

An overview of lobbying

The lobbying industry has a famously terrible public reputation. Americans rate "the role of lobbyists" as a bigger problem than income inequality, violent crime, climate change, racism and illegal immigration. In 2021, lobbyists themselves ranked lower than car salesmen (and politicians!) in public perceptions of honesty and ethical standards - literally at the very bottom of the list.

These perceptions arise from the popular belief that lobbyists are hired by well-heeled special interests to nefariously intercede with politicians to advance the pecuniary interests of their clients through wining, dining, and the generous application of campaign cash. Though this view is generally somewhat accurate, it is also incomplete.

Lobbyists themselves would argue that they play an important role in educating officeholders, few of whom really understand many of the technical policy details of legislation they work on. Many lobbyists represent organizations that legitimately work in the public interest, and who simply need help navigating the ins and outs of government. And of course, "lobbying" is itself just another term for petitioning one's elected representatives, which is an explicitly constitutional right.

In other words, not all lobbying is bad.

But much of it plainly is. An excellent recent example came immediately after the 2020 election. After spending millions of dollars on dark-money ads attacking Democratic candidates, Duke Energy's lobbyists played a central role in writing draft energy legislation that Republican lawmakers then turned around and proposed. (Duke Energy is the single largest lobbying spender in North Carolina.) Duke Energy drafted legislation directly with Republican lawmakers and big business groups in closed-door sessions to which Democrats were not invited, and nor were representatives from electric customers or environmental advocates. Electric ratepayers themselves had effectively no voice in the future of energy policy in their state.

Most lobbying, however, is smaller in scale and more mundane. It is requesting pet projects quietly added to bills, technical bill details tweaked, and information exchanged with legislators, staff and lobbyists' clients. Since the vast majority of voters have essentially no idea what happens at the legislature, deals like these are generally worked out without drawing too much attention.

Who does the lobbying?

When an organization wants to lobby members of the legislature, they generally hire a lobbying firm to do so on their behalf. There are many such firms, both Raleigh-specific and national, which offer lobbying services at the legislature. Organizations (typically corporations) that do extensive lobbying hire their own in-house lobbyists, who work for the company.

There is a regular flow of political staffers, as well as legislators themselves, who leave the legislature to go work in lobbying. Staffers or members recently departed from the legislature can monetize their relationships with those still in office to help influence legislation, making them sought-after hires. The compensation is hard to resist, too. Legislators who are only paid $14,000 per year for their service in the legislature can turn around and make a high six-figure income at a lobbying shop.

But some decide to go it alone. Bob Steinburg, the notoriously nutty Republican state senator from eastern NC, lost his primary for Senate District 1 earlier this year. Barely a month later, Steinburg resigned his seat, specifically in order to trigger a statutory 6-month countdown until he is legally permitted to begin work as a registered lobbyist. He began by dictating terms to Camden County, which eventually hired him as a lobbyist. (As did Elizabeth City.)

That's right - even some city and county governments hire lobbyists, paid for by taxpayer dollars, to advocate for them in Raleigh. Besides Camden, New Hanover ($134,000), Carteret ($90,000), Gaston ($60,000), Mecklenburg ($60,000), Hoke ($58,500), Forsyth ($57,500), Union ($51,000), Dare ($50,000), Cabarrus ($42,500) and Pasquotank ($30,000) all paid for lobbyist services in the legislature that, evidently, their elected representatives could not (or would not) provide for free. So did the cities of Charlotte, Raleigh, Greenville, Asheville, Fayetteville, Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Wilson, Surf City, Wilmington, Morganton, High Point, Mount Airy and Havelock.

Note: in Our Indivisible Destiny: The Case for Democracy and Reform for the Future, we suggest several reforms to make lawmakers less susceptible to lobbyist influence. One would be to lengthen the "cooling off period" before ex-legislators can become lobbyists from 6 months to 2 years, or one full legislative biennium.

By the way - we mentioned above that the amount spent on lobbying was increasing. Here are the total sums spent on registered lobbyists at the North Carolina state legislature over the last 3 years for which data is available:

  • 2019: $44,700,493
  • 2020: $50,284,768
  • 2021: $63,657,086

That 2021 figure represents a whopping 26.6% increase over 2020, and a 42.4% increase just since 2019. This massive rise in spending on lobbying is something of a mystery, but everyone in Raleigh has a theory. Surely, some of it was due to COVID and the resulting wave of federal financial aid. But the cost of doing business with the Republican majority might also simply be going up.

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