By Ben Baeder, Whittier Daily News, 7/6/14
At an increasing pace, your local government is spending your tax money paying lobbyists to get some more of your own tax money sent back to your community.
A review of state records shows that government-on-government lobbying is the single largest segment of lobbying of Californias state Legislature.
Water districts, city councils and school districts spend more than bankers, pharmaceutical companies, health care or any other category, according to the California Secretary of States Office. In all, local governments spend about $45 million annually to influence the 120 elected state lawmakers and a host of other bureaucrats and political appointees who influence state politics.
And those figures dont count money from public employee unions or public private partnerships.
Whats more, government-on-government lobbying has outpaced the overall growth in lobbying.
Since 2002, spending on all lobbying is up 45.5 percent. But during the same time period, government lobbying grew even faster, increasing by 50.5 percent.
All that spending has got the staff at one advocacy group wondering: Why cant a member of the local government just pick up the phone and talk with a legislator?
That system where a local government official just honestly asks for what he or she needs for the local agency, it seems like it doesnt work like that anymore, said Philip Ung, director for Common Cause California and a registered lobbyist himself. And I think people want to know why.
The reasons for the increase are many, according to experts who cite everything from term limits to increasing societal complexity.
But when it comes down to the brass tacks, almost everyone comes to the same conclusion to explain why: It works.
There are a lot of different voices up there trying to reach lawmakers, said Bob Pacheco, a Republican from Diamond Bar who served in the Assembly from 1998 to 2004. Lobbyists are a great tool to get attention for a city.
Lobbyists help legislators, many of whom are inexperienced under term limits, cut through the static and get right to the important questions, such as: What will this do? Who wants it? Will it work? and What are the chances of getting it passed?
Lobbyists have relationships, data and knowledge of the personalities and passions of the states lawmakers, said Pacheco, who now serves on the Walnut City Council.
Lobbyists are also an important tool for a lawmaker to gain influence through relationships with other lawmakers and with potential donors, Pacheco said.
Money does buy influence, absolutely, he said. I dont think anybody can deny that.
But a lobbyist and a legislator should never, ever talk money, he said.
You talk policy, period, he said.
Assemblyman and former gubernatorial candidate Tim Donnelly, R-Hesperia, said, for many legislators, lobbyists dig up information, write laws and round up support.
Basically, you can be at the golf course, doing nothing, all while your job is being done, Donnelly said. People are already cynical about government, and this is making it worse.
In an exhaustive look at lobbyists influence, the San Jose Mercury News in 2010 found that 39 percent of bills were sponsored by outside interests meaning that they werent thought up by a legislator or constituent. Instead, they mostly were created and written by lobbyists working for a specific interested party.
Lobbyist Anthony Gonzalves represents more than 40 government and quasi-governmental agencies in Los Angeles County unapologetically.
Some people call us legislative advocates, but Im a lobbyist, he said. Im proud of what I do. You dont make it 37 years in this business by burning people and being unethical.
Lobbyists see the whole picture, he said.
They can identify hidden costs, understand competing ideas and navigate the nuanced social structure of Sacramento politics, he said.
While he was surprised that lobbying by government agencies had outpaced the overall increase in lobbying, he said he had a pretty good idea why.
Term limits, he said. They caused a lot of friction.
Until a recent change in law, a politician could spend only six years in the Assembly and eight years in the state Senate.
Instead of talking with constituents, doing research and building coalitions, elected officials the last few years spent their time planning their next move, usually a jump from the Assembly to the state Senate, Gonzalves said.
Now politicians can stay in the Legislature a total of 12 years, regardless of chamber.
Still, many politicians are inexperienced and ambitious, he said, while lobbyists have a longer-term view.
Local agency officials said that lobbying, love it or hate it, is part of the game.
While most people in the San Gabriel Valley likely cannot name any members of the San Gabriel Basin Water Quality Authority or say what the agency does, the WQA during the first nine months of last year spent $170,000 lobbying to influence state legislators. Most of the lobbying was aimed at extending the WQAs life from 2017 to 2030, which would allow the authority to clean up more of the San Gabriel Valleys polluted groundwater.
Without the legislation, the public would have to create a new water-cleaning agency from scratch, said Ken Manning, the authoritys executive director.
It makes sense for us to keep going until everythings cleaned up, he said. Hopefully by 2030, well cease to exist.
When he got into public service in 1979 by serving on a local school district board, lobbying wasnt even on the radar, Manning said.
Its life, said Manning. Honestly, its difficult to build a relationship with a legislator.
Many in the public sector feel that, if they dont lobby, their interest will get trumped by other interests, a case that has been made by the California League of Cities.
Government expert Jessica Levinson of Loyola Law School in Los Angeles said local water or city officials in some cases are right to fight for issues they feel will make their communities better places to live.
I dont know if this issue raises ethical concerns, but it definitely raises a lot of questions, she said.