FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — When Frankfort lawmakers discuss parties, they're not always referring to the Democratic and Republican varieties.
Lobbyists spent more than $77,000 on get-togethers for lawmakers in January and February, including one at the Buffalo Trace bourbon distillery that cost nearly $15,000, according to financial reports filed with the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission.
The reports show lobbyists spent $143,000 on receptions, meals and events for all of last year, bringing the 14-month total to $220,000.
"That's just an egregious amount for them to spend, really, to influence legislators," said Louisville attorney Richard Beliles, chairman of the government watchdog group Common Cause of Kentucky. "The public is definitely not benefited by all these parties."
Lobbyists crave face time with lawmakers to discuss issues and throwing parties provides opportunities for that because most of them attend. But Common Cause Kentucky contends the receptions give well-financed lobbyists unfettered access and therefore an unfair advantage in influencing legislation.
Lobbyists spent an average of nearly $560 per lawmaker on meals, receptions and events over the past two months and more than $1,000 per lawmaker for all of last year, an Associated Press analysis of the financial reports showed.
The Buffalo Trace reception was the most expensive on the list. It was paid for by the Kentucky Coal Association, Coal Operators & Associates, Kentucky Oil & Gas Association and West Kentucky Coal Association. They each chipped in $3,687 to cover the cost of drinks, a meeting room and appetizers.
"Relationships are a part of policymaking and leadership," said Bill Bissett, president of the Kentucky Coal Association. "That ability to talk one-on-one with our elected leaders is important, so they don't forget about us."
"To me, to have an event that size, that was well-attended, for that little money, obviously shows that we're spending our members' money well," Bissett added.
The second most expensive get-together — sponsored by CSX Corp., Norfolk Southern Corp., and Paducah & Louisville Railroad Inc. — came with a price tag of more than $10,000. Each of the railroad companies chipped in $3,585 for the Feb. 12 reception.
Some of the other more expensive gatherings included one sponsored by the Kentucky Association of Realtors that cost more than $6,200. The Kentucky Rural Water Association spent nearly $4,300 on a breakfast on Feb. 7.
The Kentucky Beverage Association spent $3,700 on a get-together at the Capital Plaza Hotel in Frankfort on Feb. 11, the same night as the coal and natural gas get-together.
Lawmakers later passed a bill supported by the beverage industry that lifted a Prohibition-era ban on the sale of alcohol on Election Day. And coal operators defeated legislation again that would have barred them from shoving soil and rock from mountaintop mines into streams.
Beliles said it's not fair that wealthy coal operators can throw lavish parties with hopes of influencing lawmakers when others who don't have fat wallets can't.
"I bet there wasn't any party thrown for legislators by the kind of people who sometimes end up being injured by polluted water from runoff from these mountaintops," Beliles said. "And that's just one example of the way the public is impacted by this."
Environmentalists, who held a rally at the Capitol in February but no legislative party, have been pushing the mountaintop mining bill for years without success.
State Rep. Tom Riner, D-Louisville, said he refuses to attend events sponsored by lobbyists, regardless of where they're held, because he doesn't want to be in a position of feeling indebted.
A Baptist minister, Riner said he considers the parties improper.
"Liquor and good government are not synonymous, really," he said. "That doesn't enhance our judgment at all. ... It's part of the Frankfort culture, yes, and it's part of the culture that needs to change."
Rep. Jim Gooch, D-Providence, said lawmakers sometimes have invitations to three or four parties a night organized by people who want to discuss issues and that they feel obligated to go.
"Sometimes it's almost a task to get to several events like that," Gooch said.