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Cities, counties pay price for Capitol clout

About 150 governments spent nearly $40 million -- more than labor, oil or business -- on lobbyists to represent them in Sacramento.

September 10, 2007|Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO -- When the California Legislature diverted $1.3 billion from local transportation projects recently to pay for state programs, it was despite a frantic counteroffensive by one of the costliest lobbying corps in the capital.

The budget dust-up was only the latest for an army of hired guns fielded by more than 150 local governments throughout California, which spend tens of millions of dollars each year pressing state officials to do their bidding. They typically spend more on state lobbying than unions, manufacturing interests or the oil industry -- nearly $40 million last year.

Although cities and counties have grown more dependent than ever on decisions made in Sacramento, the investment doesn't always pay off. As the loss of transit funds this year and the defeat of key city-backed measures in the past show, local governments regularly lose critical battles their lobbyists are paid to win.

The city of Los Angeles has two full-time employees assigned to lobby in Sacramento, but it also hires private firms. Still, the city got what it wanted from barely more than half of the bills it took positions on during one recent period, state records show.

Records also show that outside lobbyists hired by cities and counties sometimes work against local interests on behalf of other clients with competing agendas.

Taxpayer advocates say local governments should not have to spend millions on lobbyists to get the attention of state lawmakers from those same cities and counties. Los Angeles County, they note, has the biggest and most powerful delegation of state legislators in California and still spends about $1.7 million on lobbying annually, including paying a staff of five lobbyists.

"Since many of the elected representatives in Sacramento come from local government, they are already well represented," said Jon Coupal, president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn.

Dan Jacobson, legislative lobbyist for the group Environment California, said the county's representatives include "what some would argue are the most powerful legislators in the state," Assembly Speaker Fabian Nuñez (D-Los Angeles) among them.

"There is no reason to spend all of this money on lobbyists," Jacobson said.

Dan Carrigg, legislative director for the League of California Cities, defended the municipalities' use of lobbyists. Once lawmakers get to Sacramento, Carrigg said, they can be overwhelmed by the many competing interests and the thousands of bills and budget proposals they must consider.

Lobbyists can draw a lawmaker's attention to a bill of particular local interest, whether it addresses cleaning up contaminated groundwater near a client's town or defeating efforts to overturn local control of construction projects and industries, he said.

"Their job is to help the client get through a very chaotic and easily misunderstood process," Carrigg said.

And cities and counties have a major disadvantage against private interests: The governments cannot shower legislators with campaign cash.

"It is a factor," Carrigg said. "All we have is our policy argument under our arm. It [money] does play a role."

Los Angeles County's veteran head lobbyist, Dan Wall, believes things would be much worse if he and his four staff lobbyists were not on the job.

"The counties are the favorite solution for the state of California to balance its budget," Wall said.

Still, Coupal and other taxpayer advocates say that money spent getting the attention of elected representatives could be better spent hiring police officers and providing other essential local services.

Big spenders during the fiscal year that ended June 30 included the California League of Cities, which spent $1.8 million on lobbying in Sacramento, followed by Los Angeles County, with a $1.7-million tab, and Orange County, which spent $1.1 million.

The city of Los Angeles spent $1.05 million. The California State Assn. of Counties put up $1.04 million.

Much of the money that Los Angeles County spends on lobbyists goes to former state legislators who are now lobbying the state government they ran. The county's lobbyists include former Assemblymen Bob Cline, Bill Duplissea and Burt Margolin.

For the money Los Angeles County spends on those and other lobbyists, the nonpartisan Americans for Prosperity Foundation recently named it No. 2 on its "Lobbying Hall of Shame" list.

The report said the county spent $11.8 million from 1998-2006 lobbying state and federal government. The city of Los Angeles, despite its big lobbying tab, has lost nearly as many battles in Sacramento as it has won. The City Council and mayor identified for its lobbyists 43 bills important to Los Angeles in the first quarter of last year, and the city failed to get its way on 20.

Among them were bills that would have provided driver's licenses to illegal immigrants and authorized use of state HIV-prevention money to provide drug users with clean hypodermic needles. The city supported them, but they did not become law.

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