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California and the West

Lobbying by Firms Linked to Democrats Up Sharply

Influence: Local governments, insurers and health care were the top spenders for first three quarters of 1999.

March 19, 2000|DAN MORAIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — Billings by lobby firms with heavily Democratic leanings rose sharply last year, as the state had its first Democratic governor in 16 years and Democrats held firm control of the Legislature, a report by Secretary of State Bill Jones shows.

Reflecting issues that were a focus of last year's legislation, the insurance and health care industries spent heavily. They were the second- and third-largest spenders, behind the perennial leader--government itself--as local officials hired lobbyists and came to Sacramento in search of tax money.

Moneyed interests from prune growers and unions to insurance companies and oil giants spent more than $125 million to influence state government in the first nine months of last year, the report says.

Specific comparisons are difficult because the secretary of state issues such reports only periodically and those in previous years do not cover the same nine-month period. However, the $125 million spent during the first three quarters of 1999 represents a pace that is 12% above 1997 and 1998 levels, and 33% more than was spent in 1993 and 1994.

Jones' report does not count everything spent to influence legislators. The Fair Political Practices Act requires that lobby firms and entities that hire lobbyists disclose the amounts they shell out while making their pitches to legislators and other government officials.

But the requirement does not extend to law firms that represent clients with issues before state government, or to public relations operations that generate public reaction in so-called grass-roots campaigns aimed at influencing lawmakers. Several lobby firms also are law firms and have public relations arms.

"The more active government gets in its relationship with business and individuals, the more people tend to go to government law firms," said attorney Steve Merksamer, partner in the political law and lobby firm Nielsen, Merksamer, Parrinello, Mueller & Naylor. "It has become a fact of modern life."

State Farm Insurance was the biggest spender in the first nine months of 1999, at $1.91 million. The insurance company bumped the oil industry trade group Western States Petroleum Assn., which most often is the top spender among all lobbyist employers. The petroleum association fell to fourth, behind Pacific Telesis and a trade group representing insurance companies.

Insurance companies mobilized last year as the Legislature considered and approved major legislation advocated by their nemesis, the trial lawyers, expanding the right to sue insurance companies.

Although the $5.6 million that insurers spent on lobbying in the first three quarters was big money, it would have been a bargain if the industry had won in the Capitol. Insurance companies ended up spending $50 million on their successful campaign over Propositions 30 and 31 earlier this month to repeal the legislation.

Two lobbying firms--Aaron Read and Associates and Rose and Kindel--moved into the top 10. Both have Democratic leanings, though they have diverse clients. Rose and Kindel, a 12-year-old firm, is the first woman-owned lobby group to reach the top 10, though several other top firms have women in leading management positions, and Kathleen Snodgrass is a partner in Carpenter Snodgrass and Associates.

Read represents several labor organizations of professional government workers, including state engineers, attorneys, scientists, firefighters and police. Read's clients also include such major corporations as Matson Navigation Co., Tosco Oil and the Distilled Spirits Council.

His firm, consisting of five lobbyists, ranked sixth, with billings of $1.63 million in the first nine months of 1999. That nearly equaled the $1.9 million the firm received in 1997 and 1998 combined.

"Gray Davis is one of my oldest friends," Read said, noting that he dealt with Davis when the governor was chief of staff to Gov. Jerry Brown 25 years ago. Davis, said Read, recently told him: "Use my name; we go way back."

"Maybe some people are figuring that out," said Read, who has been lobbying for 30 years.

Sacramento's biggest lobby firm remains Kahl/Pownall Advocates, which received $2.95 million last year, more than $1 million more than its nearest rival. Kahl/Pownall's largest client is the Western States Petroleum Assn., which spent $1.4 million influencing legislators.

The No. 2 firm, Richard Robinson and Associates, billed almost $1.9 million. Headed by the former Democratic assemblyman from Orange County, Robinson's group edged ahead of the firm headed by former Sen. Dennis Carpenter, also from Orange County, which had ranked second in 1998.

Robinson's firm added Craig Brown, who was Department of Finance director under Gov. Pete Wilson and has been a top official in the state prison system. The firm added the influential California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. as a client last year. It also represents several accountancy firms and a major insurance company.

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