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Fracking lobby donates big to Ohio politicians

Campaign cash and lobbying efforts from the natural gas industry have boomed in Ohio alongside a greater drilling presence in the past two years, according to a report released Thursday.

Industry executives, employees and political action committees gave more than $1.8 million to Ohio elected officials, candidates and political parties from July 2011 through June 2013, according to an analysis of state political contribution data by Common Cause Ohio.

The majority of contributions went to Republican officials and lawmakers, who control the Statehouse and the balance of political power in Ohio’s capital.

Common Cause bills itself as a nonpartisan organization that aims to keep government accountable. Its Ohio office has targeted “fracking,” a process that uses water and chemicals pumped underground to fracture the earth and release natural gas, oil and other substances.

Catherine Turcer of Common Cause Ohio said the industry’s recent relevance presents a good case study for examining possible connections between money and politics and revising Ohio’s lobbying laws.

“We’ve had such significant changes in these policies in the last few years … this industry has come in like a steamroller,” Turcer said.

Contributions flowed heavy in January 2012 and the early months of 2013, when Gov. John Kasich introduced a drilling regulation bill and proposed a tax hike on the industry. Ohio House of Representatives spokesman Mike Dittoe said the money didn’t influence leading lawmakers to scrap Kasich’s tax hike or to pass the regulatory bill, which requires drillers to disclose most fracking fluids, among other changes.

“Political contributions never dictate or influence legislative matters before the Ohio House,” Dittoe said. “No one is beholden to any industry or special interest — these organizations are contributing to House Republicans because they believe in what they’re doing.”

Common Cause tallied $43,000 in reported expenditures from industry lobbyists, which Turcer said doesn’t paint a complete picture of the industry’s lobbying efforts.

Ohio lobbyists reported $407,322 in expenditures last year. Pennsylvania has a similar amount of lobbying entities and lobbyists, but reported $407 million in lobbying expenditures — $12.7 million in natural gas and drilling.

Pennsylvania requires lobbyists to disclose their salaries, paid by various companies and organizations. Ohio does not. Ohio also ended in 2010 its revolving door policy that required lawmakers to take one year off before lobbying. The policy’s supporters argued that the break prevented lawmakers from quid pro quos and other influence while still in office.

“There’s a whole lot of activity going on out there that we don’t know about,” said James Browning, regional director for Common Cause.

Former Senate President Tom Niehaus, a Republican from New Richmond, introduced a bill late last year that would have revised some state ethics law, including lobbying expenditure reporting. The bill was introduced too late in the session to move past the Ohio Senate, so the General Assembly never had a full conversation about the plan or other ethics law reforms.

Dittoe said he’s not aware of any conversations among House leadership to review lobbying requirements, but it could come up in the remaining 16 months of this session.

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