Special interests capitalize on Legislature’s end-of-session chaos

by Shane Goldmacher and Evan Halper, Los Angeles Times

As lawmakers rush to pass bills before the deadline, lobbyists and others are busy making deals.

It happens every year at this time. Overtired legislators are only days from the deadline to pass new laws, and there is so much bustle in the Capitol that keeping track of all the drafts of bills is almost impossible. That’s when special interests can capitalize on the chaos.

It’s an opportunity to rush proposals to a Senate or Assembly floor vote with little vetting, media scrutiny or public notice. And this year, many groups are scurrying to do just that, convincing friendly lawmakers to use arcane procedures that allow them to step around rules meant to expose proposed laws to plenty of sunlight.

"It’s an easier way to, frankly, pull a fast one," said Joe Nation, a former Democratic assemblyman who now lectures about public policy at Stanford.

As the session deadline of midnight Tuesday approaches, a Silicon Valley software company, a retailers’ business group, a medical data firm and one of the country’s biggest oil companies have been among those pressing their case.

Lobbyists hustle to corral legislators as they enter and exit the chambers, making their pitch in hushed tones. They may urge lawmakers to wipe out the contents of existing bills and replace them with entirely new legislation. The overdue state budget offers another opportunity for stealth special interest requests, which can be slipped in as budget language is cobbled together quickly and largely out of public view.

Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries (R-Lake Elsinore) recently issued a "mushroom alert" to his constituents because of the sheer number of bills sprouting up "in the dark of night."

"In short I’m telling you this because it is a terrible way to do the public’s business," Jeffries wrote.

On Aug. 20, the last day to rewrite legislation without a special waiver, Assemblywoman Norma Torres (D- Pomona) gutted the contents of a little-noticed bill that would change how some public meetings must be advertised and replaced it with a measure being pushed by the California Retailers Assn.

The bill, AB 1581, now would allow retailers, including large chains like Wal-Mart and Jack in the Box, to move into a vacant storefront up to 120,000 square feet without filing a new environmental impact report.

"Stores mean jobs, simple as that," said Bill Dombrowski, the association’s president. He said the retailers have been discussing the bill with Assembly Speaker John A. P