Lobbying price tag: A quarter billion dollars by year’s end

by Cindy Baker, Capitol Weekly

Lobbyists have a lot to be thankful for this holiday season. The powerful interests that employ lobbyists spent nearly quarter of a billion dollars — $217 million from Jan. 1 through Sept. 30 ‘ to persuade government to meet their clients’ needs. The amount is a record.

Some of the most lavish spending came from those whose own programs appeared threatened by the looming chopping block of the state budget, and they in included groups representing education, energy, utilities, healthcare organizations and organized labor.

The 325,000-member California’s Teacher’s Association, one of the largest and most powerful political interests in the state, spent the most — $6.2 million on lobbying efforts through the end of September.

The figure includes the money spent on outside lobbyists as well as the dollar value on the organization’s in-house lobbyists.  During the first three quarters more than 2,600 interests spent $88 million on in-house lobbying alone ‘ nearly $10 million a month.

‘Lobbying is a legal and appropriate activity,’ says Dan Schnur, director of the USC’s Jesse M. Unruh Institute.  ‘Given the financial stakes, if you can get a $100 million tax break or create a spending program that perpetuates your special interest for just a few thousand dollars, even with these numbers, then this kind of spending on lobbying is a most cost-effective process.’

At the current pace, California’s lobbying spending totals are expected to easily  top  a quarter of a billion dollars by the end of the year. Next year, an election year with myriad deep-pocket issues facing the Legislature, promises to be even more.

The petroleum industry spent heavily on lobbying this year, their payments eclipsed only by those of the California Teachers Association. Among the issues facing the industry was the creation of a renewable portfolio standard requiring utilities to get a third of their power from alternative energy sources ‘ including wind, solar and geothermal ‘ by the end of the decade, and the creation of a cap-and-trade economic program to curb greenhouse gases.

The Western States Petroleum Association spent $3.2 million, while Chevron Corporation and its subsidiaries spent $2.1 million.

Healthcare companies also compete heavily, with companies like Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, Inc. ($2.5 million) and the California Hospital Association/California Association of Hospitals and Health Systems ($1.9 million) have also been making considerable contributions this year.

The tiny, scandal-plagued city of Vernon just a few miles south of Los Angeles (pop. 105) spent an astonishing $3.1 million on lobbying, as it battled to retain its cityhood against legislation authored by the Assembly speaker. In the end the speaker’s legislation was blocked by a powerful labor and business coalition.

Last August, Vernon’s top city administrators were reportedly investigated for spending funds issued by the city on such things like first-class travel accommodations and elaborate gift-giving to elected officials.

The L.A. Times reported earlier that longtime Vernon city consultant Eric T. Fresch decided to voluntarily step down in May 2012. Fresch earned just over $600,000 this year for serving as legal counsel for the Vernon Light and Power department, the Times reported.

Despite being investigated for corruption and the effort that was made by the Legislature to disband the industrial city, the Times stated that Fresch remains ‘one of the highest paid municipal officials in the nation.’

Proponents of this record spending may see these new numbers as an attempt to stimulate the State’s economy and create stronger job growth. Labor Unions such as the California State Council of Service Employees ($3.2 million), the California Manufacturers and Technology Association ($1.8 million), Wal-Mart ($1.3million) and AT&T ($1.4 million) are all actively vying for California’s legislative attention.

These numbers don’t go unnoticed. In an effort to publicly prioritize the responsibilities of the FPPC, Chair Ann Ravel has said that she wants the agency’s investigation enforcement power to only focus on what would be considered ‘major cases’ by the Board.

Ravel has said that since she’s taken her post with the government watchdog organization in February, she’s ‘done more to (investigate) much more erroneous violations of the Political Reform Act.’ While there have been audible grumblings from some pretty powerful opponents, Ravel has stressed the need to better communicate what some have called the ‘overly-litigious language’ of the FPPC’s role in investigating fiscal violations.

Schnur, a former FPPC chair, says that the key to the current administrations success is full disclosure. ‘When these kinds spending numbers climb, the public is left with a more cynical concept of the legislative process. The FPPC needs that transparency in order to be effective.’

Both the Secretary of State’s Office and the Fair Political Practices Commission have public information about lobbying expenditures to individuals and firms, including all reported gifts and behested payments, which are readily available online. But by law, these numbers are only required to be reported four times a year.

‘Reporting schedules are set in state law and lobbying spending is reported quarterly,’ says Nicole Winger, Communications Deputy for the Secretary of State.