Lobbyists spend millions — and rarely lose in Legislature
Published Sunday, Mar. 29, 2009
The first of an occasional series exploring the varied ways in which California lobbyists and their employers press the levers of power.
Special interests spent a record $553 million lobbying California state government in the past two years.
For them, it was money well spent.
Makers of chemical fire- retardants poured in more than $9 million to kill a ban on fire-proofing chemicals in furniture that consumer groups say cause cancer.
The Morongo Band of Mission Indians used $4.39 million to muscle through a gambling deal to let the tribe add thousands of lucrative new slot machines to its casino.
The oil industry spent more than $10.5 million to influence the Legislature and state agencies. A 2007 industry association report touted that even in a Democratic-controlled Legislature, “of the 52 bills identified as priorities (in 2007), only three that we opposed were approved by the Legislature.”
Of those three, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed two.
A Bee analysis of this past two-year session found the 10 highest-spending employers of private lobbyists shelled out a total of more than $70 million working the halls of state government. They rarely lost.
“You’re fighting a mountain of money,” said former Assemblywoman Sally Lieber, D-Mountain View. “You have an idea, and they have enormous amounts of money. Who’s going to win?”
Top lobbyists and their employers use the millions to amass armies of advocates to build alliances and cultivate relationships to influence their agenda. They buy meals and gifts and treat policymakers to Disneyland or Kings games. They amp up external pressure by blanketing their targets’ constituents with mailers and radio ads.
Lobby fuels growth industry
In the past two decades, the amount spent on lobbying in California has increased with each two-year legislative session, rising from $193 million in 1989-90 to more than $550 million last session, state records show.
The number of groups hiring professional advocates has also grown, from 682 in 1975 to 2,365 at the start of the 2007-08 session.
With term limits capping how long legislators can serve in the statehouse, the lobby corps is largely the keeper of the Capitol’s institutional knowledge.
Indeed, advocacy groups insist their success comes with earning lawmakers’ trust and disseminating accurate information.
“You’re either trustworthy or you’re not,” said Don Burns, the dean of the lobbying corps, who has represented an array of interests – from pool manufacturers to nuclear waste dumps – in a half-century of advocacy.
The California Chamber of Commerce’s Allan Zaremberg put it this way: “The first thing is we have to ensure that we provide the appropriate level of knowledge and education, because I think that translates eventually into influence.”
Strength found in numbers
The corps of lobbyists truly is California’s third house – and a bigger one at that. Registered lobbyists outnumber lawmakers in Sacramento 8-to-1.
That ratio allows the richest interests the luxury of swarming the Legislature for key policy battles.
The California Teachers Association, the No. 4 lobbying spender, and the California Chamber of Commerce, ranked No. 8, each deployed nine full-time lobbyists last session.
AT&T had three staff lobbyists – and contracts with nine outside firms.
Frustrated lawmakers taking on a moneyed interest often describe the lobbying ranks aligned against them in military terms.
“I was outgunned,” said Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, who estimated that 30 lobbyists were working against her 2008 bill to ban perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs, from food packaging.
Her bill passed the Legislature, but Schwarzenegger vetoed it.
“I would see them in the hallways meeting, outside the chambers, at committee hearings,” said Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, recalling her 2007 fight with the chemical industry. “They were all over the place.”
Ma’s bill – banning phthalates in plastic toys – became law. But it was the only successful chemical ban of a dozen attempted over two years.
Of lawmakers and Kings
The sheer number of advocates is no guarantee of success. Lobbying, by nature, is a relationship business.
While lobbyists are limited to $10 a month in gifts to lawmakers and staff, their employers – the unions, businesses and trade groups paying them – have a much higher limit: $390 per year.
That is how elected officials regularly enjoy Kings games, meals at posh steakhouses and even tickets to the Rose Bowl free of charge.
Invariably, representatives of those footing the bill get face time by accompanying policymakers to the events.
Legislators and interest groups alike insist the gifts have no impact on lawmaking.
But Don Palmer, a professor who studies ethics and social responsibility, said human nature suggests otherwise.
“Sociologists call it the ‘generalized norm or reciprocity,’ ” said Palmer, associate dean at the UC Davis Graduate School of Management. “We all learned it in kindergarten: When someone is nice to you or generous to you, then you feel obligated to be nice to them.”
AT&T racked up $250,000 in such giveaways to lawmakers, staff and their families in the past two years. The company declined to be interviewed.
“(AT&T) will support everybody,” said former Senate Republican leader Dick Ackerman. “They will invite everybody to their boxes, both Reeps and Dems, because they just want to try and have relationships with everybody.”
PR blitzes heighten stakes
When retail lobbying is not enough, well-heeled interests have the resources to mobilize public relations campaigns – or at least threaten to do so – to ratchet up the pressure.
In early 2007, the Morongo tribe was telling every reporter and lawmaker within earshot of the Capitol that it had allotted $20 million for a PR offensive to win its battle for more slot machines.
The tribe vowed a statewide TV blitz, 500,000 pieces of direct mail, phone calls and even a door-knocking campaign in the districts of the 10 Democrats on the Assembly’s gambling committee.
It appeared to be a “shock-and-awe”- scale effort to press for its gambling expansion aimed at majority Democrats. One lawmaker called the tribe out for bullying tactics.
As it turned out, the tribe spent only $3.5 million that quarter, according to financial disclosures filed months later. But the message had been sent – the tribe had the resources to alter the political playing field in Sacramento. Its casino expansion was approved.
The tribe declined to comment for this story.
The American Chemistry Council, an industry group, spent $4.7 million in a three-month span in 2008, much of it aimed at a single chemical ban, said Tim Shestek, the council’s chief lobbyist.
Questioning the science behind removing bisphenol-A from plastic products, the industry warned that popular consumer goods would disappear if the ban were approved.
“We had to do a lot of educational efforts, and some of those educational efforts were expensive,” Shestek said of the barrage of mailers, radio and newspaper ads unleashed on districts represented by the Legislature’s swing votes.
The target of the industry’s ire, a bill by Democratic Sen. Carole Migden, failed as many lawmakers “took a walk” during the vote, Capitol parlance for making one’s self scarce to avoid choosing between a moneyed interest and an unpopular vote.
Power lies in blocking bills
The state’s most powerful interests don’t necessarily get their way with every bill or policy.
Complex issues involve multiple interests, making it harder for any one group to make a difference.
The California Hospital Association, for example, ranked as the sixth-largest spender, at $5.9 million. A large portion of that went toward TV ads pressing for lawmakers to pass the tardy state budget last year, said CHA spokeswoman Jan Emerson.
Hospitals suffered during the impasse because Medi-Cal payments were suspended yet patients continued to receive treatment. The TV ads aired, but the delay dragged on, largely unaffected.
The real power of the biggest interests is in blocking bills, wielding a de facto veto especially when no moneyed group is lobbying on the other side.
While the hospitals failed to coax a budget, they succeeded in blocking each of the six bills they opposed.
“It’s so much easier to kill a bill than to pass a bill,” said Lenny Goldberg, a consumer lobbyist.
It’s an approach embraced by the California Chamber of Commerce. When the business lobby slaps its “job killer” label on legislation, it is usually a death sentence.
In 2008 alone, 29 of the 39 “job killers” identified by the chamber died in the Legislature. Schwarzenegger vetoed nine of the remaining 10 that made it to his desk.
“It’s harder to get somebody to vote yes – to make change – than it is to say no,” said Zaremberg, the chamber president. “That is just a function of human nature. I don’t think it’s anything unique to our business.”
Ban bill flames out
The fire-retardant industry coalition lined up against then-Assemblyman Mark Leno in 2007 after the San Francisco Democrat proposed eliminating brominated and chlorinated flame retardants now used in foam furniture. Leno cited studies saying the compounds cause cancer.
State records show the industry coalition opposed to his measure spent less than $175,000 in lobbying money in the first half of 2007.
During that time, Leno’s bill sailed out of the Assembly with five votes to spare in the 80-member house.
Then the industry spent $6.17 million to derail the bill over the next three months. Two new lobbying firms – with seven lobbyists – were hired to work the halls, according to records.
Glossy mailers with images of children in firefighters’ arms warned the bill’s passage “could be a deadly mistake.” Ads filled newspapers. There was even a small campaign on the airwaves.
“They threw the kitchen sink at this bill,” said Russell Long, vice president of Friends of the Earth and a supporter of the chemical ban.
Seth Jacobsen, a spokesman for the industry coalition, which now goes by the name Citizens for Fire Safety, said the effort was needed to counter a “hysterical, emotional appeal about how this stuff kills people.”
“In order for us to be successful we have to set the context of the debate,” he said. “And for us the context of the debate is about fire safety and not about science.”
The bill died in a September vote of the 40-member state Senate.
“No money – we got 46 votes” in the Assembly, said Leno, sighing. “Lots of money – we couldn’t get 21 votes. That kind of ties it all up.”