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Lobbying of legislators sets record

Groups spent $286.6 million to court lawmakers, up 6.8% from 2010, records show.

March 06, 2012|Patrick McGreevy

SACRAMENTO — State Assemblyman Warren Furutani looked out over a sea of red -- protesting oil industry workers wearing scarlet T-shirts -- and saw trouble for his plan to raise $2.5 billion for universities with a tax on crude.

The Central Valley workers had packed a legislative hearing to oppose the idea. Their shirts said "Save Our Jobs" and oil companies had spent close to $5,000 to bus them to the Capitol from Bakersfield.

The bill died, one of many victories for an industry that paid $12 million to an army of lobbyists last year to do its bidding.

Businesses, unions and other interests set a record in 2011 for money spent lobbying the state: $286.6 million, a 6.8% increase from the year before, according to recent filings. That surprised even veteran Capitol watchers, who refer to the lobbying corps as the "Third House" because its power rivals that of the two houses of the Legislature.

Amid the state's lingering economic slump and Sacramento's persistent budget crisis, a record 2,768 entities hired lobbyists last year, many of them to fight for a slice of the shrinking public pie. Corporations sought an edge with a Democratic governor after seven years when a business-friendly Republican was in charge.

"A change of administrations brings uncertainty," said John J. Pitney Jr., a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College. That means "more activity by lobbyists."

California teachers won a bill restricting school districts' ability to issue pink slips. The healthcare industry prevailed over one that would have made it harder to hike rates. The beleaguered city of Vernon fought off disincorporation. Billionaire Philip Anschutz won a custom law helping him proceed with the NFL stadium he hopes to build in Los Angeles.

The California Teachers Assn. spent the most, as it does periodically: $6.5 million. Among its many successes, it persuaded lawmakers to pass a last-minute bill restricting school districts' ability to lay off more teachers if future funding cuts occur.

"That was a huge score for the teachers," said Larry Gerston, a political science professor at San Jose State.

In addition to paying a team of seven in-house lobbyists, the CTA wined and dined elected officials and their staffs and helped cover travel and lodging costs as hundreds of teachers converged on Sacramento for a "week of action" on the budget crisis last May.

The lobbying activity is legal and publicly disclosed in quarterly reports to the California secretary of state. The lobbyists and those who pay them say the budget crises of recent years have forced them to be more aggressive.

CTA President Dean E. Vogel said his union's members "are really demanding we speak out against cuts."

The city of Vernon had a different need. It paid $3.5 million to more than 10 lobbyists to oppose legislation by Assembly Speaker John A. Perez (D-Los Angeles) that would have dissolved the municipal government. Perez had offered the bill in response to allegations of corruption there.

Vernon's expenses included airfare and hotel rooms for city officials and lobbyists traveling between Southern California and Sacramento.

The campaign against Perez's bill also paid for broadcast and print ads in the capital, according to Vernon spokesman Fred MacFarlane.

"It was unprecedented that a city faced legislative extinction," MacFarlane said. "That had never been done before, and a lot of work had to be done to make our case."

Kaiser Foundation Health Plan Inc. paid more than $3 million for lobbying services last year. Its wins included the demise of legislation that would have required state approval for insurers to raise rates. The organization hired in-house and outside lobbyists and treated lawmakers and their staff members to meals at swanky venues.

Other big spenders included the Western States Petroleum Assn. and Chevron Corp.

The Western States group paid $4.2 million, and Chevron $2.9 million, in an effort to influence legislation, including Furutani's oil severance tax.

The association hired three lobbying firms. One was KP Public Affairs, which employs several former top Senate staffers who have an inside track to key legislators.

The oil industry has long worked to cultivate local opposition, such as that represented by the T-shirted workers, to bills it sees as a threat. "We were very involved in organizing grass-roots opposition," said Tupper Hull, speaking for the petroleum organization.

The group also commissioned a study showing the economic impact of the industry, produced slick videos for YouTube and touted its positions on blogs and in newspaper opinion pieces. It sent out "issue alerts" to get workers to write to their legislators.

The bill was also opposed by the California Independent Petroleum Assn., which spent $7,265 to host 10 legislators at the Resort at Pelican Hill and paid for golf for some of them.

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