Tech lobbying spending surges in states

The trend is unlikely to slow given the new focus on AI regulation and with continued congressional inaction.
The San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge is seen behind a Google sign at the company’s office in San Francisco on April 12, 2023. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

Tech lobbying in the states ballooned over the past decade as the center of gravity for regulating online platforms swung from Congress to state legislatures, a trend likely to continue as states move quickly to regulate artificial intelligence.

Many states do not require full disclosure of lobbying expenditures. But in 19 that do, major tech companies and industry trade groups tripled their lobbying spending from at least $4.4 million in 2013 to $13.4 million in 2023, according to an analysis conducted for Pluribus News by OpenSecrets, which tracks money in U.S. politics.

The analysis focused on more than a dozen of the largest tech and social media companies, and industry trade groups.

“While all the big tech players increased lobbying spending over the last decade, it was the younger tech companies that saw three- to four-fold increases in spending,” said Brendan Glavin, deputy research director at OpenSecrets, who conducted the analysis.

California experienced the largest increase in lobbying spending in raw numbers.

The tech lobbying growth coincides with technology and social media companies maturing, and with states becoming the epicenter of tech-related policy amid congressional inaction. In recent years, state lawmakers have taken the lead on data privacy, youth online safety, social media regulation and, most recently, AI oversight.

Read more: Amid federal inaction, states take lead in regulating tech

Tech companies and their trade organizations now face a 50-state public policy chessboard governed by more than 7,000 state lawmakers who have the power to enact market-moving legislation.

“By and large, industry has responded by increasing investments in their state [lobbying] programs,” said David Edmonson, senior vice president for state policy at TechNet, a leading industry trade group. “Inevitably, you’re going to follow where the action is.”

The tech industry has historically opposed a patchwork of state laws, citing compliance costs and complexity. But it has been unable to dissuade state legislators from stepping into the policy voids left by Congress.

Since 2018, 18 states have enacted comprehensive consumer data privacy laws. State lawmakers in recent years have also passed a range of measures regulating how social media companies and online platforms interact with youth. Other state laws have targeted autonomous vehicles, data brokers, facial recognition software and wearable tech.

This year, lawmakers in 45 states introduced more than 600 bills related to AI and so far have approved more than 50 of them, according to tracking by MultiState, a government affairs firm.

“Much like with consumer data privacy, the absence of Congressional action [on AI] has left a vacuum for states to fill,” Max Rieper, MultiState’s director of tech and privacy policy, wrote in a recent legislative update.

The focus on AI regulation has intensified tech lobbying in statehouses.

The Business Software Alliance, which has worked on AI policy since 2018 and launched its state lobbying program in 2020, has emerged as a key player in the states.

“We show up where our issues are implicated and seek to bring a constructive approach to policy that helps to distinguish the enterprise part of the tech sector,” a BSA spokesperson said in an email. “That has been especially true of AI, where lawmakers have often looked to BSA for our input and expertise precisely because of the reputation we’ve established.”

Workday, a human resource management software giant, “has sought — and has been sought out — to play a constructive role” on AI legislation in California, Connecticut, Maryland, New York and Washington State this year, said Chandler Morse, Workday’s head of public policy.

“This has included providing input in the form of technical language informed by our participation in AI policy conversations around the world, to advance workable legislation that strikes the right balance between responsible AI and innovation,” Morse said in a statement.

As the tech industry has stepped up its presence in state capitals, some lawmakers have started to push back.

Connecticut Sen. James Maroney (D) in April convened a bipartisan group of legislators from around the country to send a warning shot to industry lobbyists that they should not try to thwart efforts to regulate AI.

“When people come with good faith suggestions, we work with them,” Maroney said at the virtual event. “But coming in and saying, ‘delete sections one to 18 of a bill’ is not good faith.”

Read more: Lawmakers call out tech industry lobbying on AI regulation

Vermont Rep. Monique Priestley (D) hosted a similar event in May that featured current and former state lawmakers from Kentucky, Maine, Maryland and Oklahoma who had sponsored consumer data privacy legislation. They described the pressure they felt from industry representatives to not deviate from a privacy framework that was passed in other states.

“Those folks are carrying … the biggest sticks money spent on lobbying can buy, and they’re winning, and they’re getting to introduce bills that are watered down more than they ought to be,” Kentucky Sen. Whitney Westerfield (R) said at the event.

Business groups counter that divergent data privacy regulations make compliance difficult and can have negative impacts on consumers.

The tech industry’s growing influence in state capitals is part of a broader trend that began 50 years ago, said James Strickland, a political science professor at Arizona State University who studies state lobbying.

Starting in the 1970s, states took a greater role in setting policy in areas such as environmental protection and taxation. That drew special interests to state capitals. In recent decades, Strickland said, health care lobbying has been a top growth area. Now it is tech.

“They could be the new, big players on the scene,” Strickland said. “And it could be that way for another decade.”