Jeremy Alford

This week marks five months since the World Health Organization designated COVID-19 as a pandemic, a watershed moment that deeply transformed how elected officials do their jobs and how the influence sector of our political economy seeks to shape that process.

Business hasn’t been exactly feast or famine for Louisiana’s lobbyists, government relations professionals and association directors, but communication challenges, belt-tightening clients and demand for Washington access are boosting anxiety levels across the aboard.

Optimists predicted a “lobbying bonanza” earlier this spring, particularly for services related to state and federal coronavirus funding. But the past few months have instead served as a reminder that the lobbying corps as an industry isn’t totally recession-proof.

The individuals and outfits representing troubled corners, like hospitality and restaurants for example, have been forced to adjust accordingly. Tales of reduced retainers and deferred invoices are also commonplace amongst government relations professionals inside the state.

While the vast majority of practitioners who work in Baton Rouge politics are either surviving or thriving, there remains an unmistakable sense of unease about what the coming months will have in store for both the economy and policymaking.

For now, federal spending by clients and associations are on the rise, with second quarter increases posted recently by the likes of Cornerstone Government Affairs, the Picard Group and other Louisiana notables with Beltway offices, according to calculations by the Center for Responsive Politics and data from the U.S. Senate Office of Public Records.

“One of our assets has been our ability to rely heavily on our DC office and federal team,” said Tyron Picard, founder and principal of the Picard Group. “Much of what we will be talking about in the upcoming October special session will be linked to what we see coming out of this next round of stimulus funding in Congress.”

Back in Baton Rouge, the challenges of lobbying during a pandemic can be seen in the monthly legislative expense reports filed with the state Ethics administration. Good government champions who are critical of the profession may see this as good news, but the teachers, physicians and others who hire lobbyists to represent them and distribute information on their behalf in Louisiana probably do not.

The five highest monthly reports filed by lobbyists (mostly connected to associations) last calendar year, from January to June, averaged out to about $12,700. This year’s top tier spenders averaged just $7,800 for the five highest reports filed during the same period in 2020.

That said, even standard meetings and basic lines of communication have undergone great changes this year, said Jim Harris, the president of Harris, DeVille & Associates who works with associations of CPAs, realtors and others. “I spend a great deal of my time texting, emailing and talking on the phone,” said Harris. “I’ve been Zoomed to death.”

Lobbyists can build a strong book of business with institutional knowledge of the appropriations, capital outlay and Bond Commission processes. But the emergence of new state and federal pots of money connected to coronavirus relief introduced a learning curve, said Rodney Braxton, a partner with Southern Strategy Group.

“You couldn’t rely on your past knowledge of how things normally worked, because each one of those new pots of money had their own rules,” said Braxton. “You have to do your homework and dig deep on how those revenue sources are structured in order to advise how folks can best get involved. Wasting time is not a luxury right now, and there’s a real uptick in people who want to be more involved in all of this and find out what’s going on. Our client base has been pretty astute. They know this isn’t the time to disengage.”

Government relations professionals with local government practices are in hot seats as well, especially in regard to relief funding. “We’re watching what they’re doing in DC,” said Eric M. Sunstrom, the president of the Chesapeake Group who works with Louisiana’s mayors, “and we’re asking through national associations for direct funding. We’re working more with newspapers and with public outreach and education. The competition is intense.”

As everyone who works in some form of government here attempts to adapt, it looks like another special session of the Legislature is just around the corner. October seems to be the start date, but details are scant at best. It’s a fitting next chapter to this story for political professionals like elected officials, reporters and lobbyists, who appear to be struggling at times — just like everyone else.

Jeremy Alford can be reached at JJA@LaPolitics.com.

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