Illustration by Zack Soto

THE BIG BUSINESS of lobbying isn't just confined to the hallowed halls of Washington, DC—reports released last week show that during the most recent legislative session, 700 groups spent over $18 million to influence politicians right here in Oregon. The numbers reveal who is working to get their perspective heard in Oregon—and how much they're willing to spend.

Some of the contrasts are revealing: Gas company Chevron spent $7,000 more than the green transportation group Bicycle Transportation Alliance ($13,692 compared to $6,726). Paper magnate Weyerhaeuser spent $10,000 more than tree-friendly 1000 Friends of Oregon ($49,004 compared to $39,201). The Oregon Hunters Association spent $21,000, while the Oregon Defenders of Wildlife spent $16,500.

The surprising news is that the group throwing the most money at Salem this year is an organization you've probably never heard of: Citizens for Fire Safety. Billing itself as a nonprofit committed to public safety, the Citizens for Fire Safety is fighting across the nation to keep certain chemical flame retardants legal.

As vocal critics like the Environmental Health Fund point out, big chemical companies back the public safety nonprofit, and those flame retardants they're fighting for? Environmentalists say they're carcinogenic. Citizens for Fire Safety spent $468,269 during the six-month legislative session to hire some of the state's best lobbyists and battle a ban on those toxic retardants. Despite the massive lobbying effort, legislators and the governor passed the ban with a strong majority.

Though lobbyists hold a skeezy reputation among many Americans, and often for good reason, they can be a helpful aspect of the government. In a state like Oregon where the legislators keep their day jobs half the year, lobbyists can help junior politicians understand the government process and work the system to get their bills through. But even for veteran politicians, lobbyists are often the on-call experts for their clients' issues.

Right up at the top of the spending list are unions, like the Oregon American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) which watched, supported, and fought hundreds of bills relating to wages and benefits for public employees. The formidable group opposed tax breaks for privately run prisons, for example, and helped block a statewide suspension in cost-of-living increases for government employees.

Racking up $167,000 in lobbying fees, Verizon was the national corporation that spent the most to lobby Oregon as it tried to push, among other things, a bill banning regulation of future internet and phone technologies. That failed, thanks to pushback from Attorney General John Kroger and other consumer interest groups. But not too far behind Verizon is Nike, which spent nearly $73,000 lobbying politicians in its home state, and Nestlé Waters, which spent almost $36,000 building support behind its plan to tap a Columbia Gorge spring as a source for bottled water. A bill is yet to be crafted on this issue, but Nestlé is currently working through permitting hurdles in court.

As for grassroots political action groups, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and LGBT group Basic Rights Oregon (BRO) topped the spending list, shelling out $135,000 and $114,000 to lobby the legislature, respectively.

While BRO is not planning to push for same-sex marriage until at least 2012, they still had plenty of work to do at the legislature, says Executive Director Jeana Frazzini. "Our priority issue was the Oregon Safe Schools Act, which strengthens requirements all across Oregon to have policies in place to deal with bullying. We felt like there was a lot more education needed," says Frazzini.

The time and money invested in lobbying shows that BRO is doing its job well, says Frazzini. "We try to keep in close contact with our decision makers in the legislature."

Rounding out the list of top-lobbying nonprofits? The Humane Society, which spent $101,000 passing what may have been the most popular bill of the entire session: a ban on puppy mills. Along the way, the group's part-time lobbyists also helped make it a crime to abandon a horse and a felony to be a spectator at a cockfight.

Despite the millions of dollars lobbying groups pour into influencing the legislature annually, lobbyists gets little oversight compared to other aspects of Oregon government. Only two state staffers are tasked with keeping records on Oregon's hundreds of lobbyists—and perhaps more important than the money lobbyists spent in Salem is the fact that those dollar amounts weren't made public until two months after the legislative session ended.

The Mercury was the only media outlet to ask for the information, according to state staffers.