By Laurel Rosenhall
Published: Sunday, Apr. 28, 2013 – 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Sunday, Apr. 28, 2013 – 10:56 am
At first glance, the role interest groups play in crafting laws in California seems easy to spot.
Unlike in many states, legislative analyses list “sponsors” for many bills, indicating that a lobbyist suggested – perhaps even wrote – and martialed forces for the measure.
But a Bee review of sponsored bills found that the forces behind legislation are often masked, leaving the public in the dark about the interests driving the creation of some new laws.
No rule requires disclosing when a bill is sponsored. Legislative committees are inconsistent about listing sponsors in legislative reports. Lobbyists and lawmakers decide privately whether to highlight or hide an interest group’s involvement.
“If the firefighters or the nurses or small-business owners support your bill, then you trumpet that support,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.
“If it’s tobacco companies, probably less so.”
The Bee worked with Capitol Track, a company that monitors legislation, to assess how pervasive sponsorship is in California’s Legislature. The organizations analyzed data from the 2011-12 legislative session – the most recent completed session – and found that 27 percent of the roughly 4,800 bills introduced list a sponsoring interest group.
In the Democrat-controlled Legislature, labor unions and liberal public interest groups, such as those that advocate for the poor, civil liberties, gay rights or animal welfare, are most commonly identified as bill sponsors. Local governments, state agencies and trade associations also appear frequently.
But the number of bills written by lobbyists, or at their request, is higher than the data reflects. Some bills do not show up because legislative staff did not flag them as sponsored when writing bill analyses, or because lawmakers completely rewrote the bill in the final days of the session. Some lawmakers are reluctant to describe the bills they carry as sponsored by outside interests.
Drug bill offers case study
A bill making its way through the Legislature illustrates the confusing state of sponsorship. Senate Bill 598 by Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, establishes a protocol for dispensing a new type of drugs called “biosimilars” once they are approved by the federal government.
Unlike generic cold medicine or pain relievers, biosimilars are not identical to the brand-name drug they replace. Already used in Europe, they are substitutes for more complex medications that are injected into the body, such as those used in treating cancer.
A legislative analysis says the bill is supported by several drug companies, including Amgen and Merck, and opposed by pharmacies and makers of generic drugs. It also says the bill is not sponsored by any interest group, a point Hill reiterated in an interview with The Bee.
“I’ve certainly met with Genentech. I’ve met with Amgen. I’ve met with many drug companies, and they all have some input into this process,” Hill said.
“But I don’t take sponsored bills.”
Yet California’s SB 598 contains several key paragraphs that are almost identical to passages in similar bills introduced this year in Indiana, North Dakota and Virginia. Lawmakers in those states told the New York Times that Genentech and Amgen brought them the bills.
Across the country, bills about biosimilars have pitted drug companies against makers of generic drugs.
At a hearing earlier this month on the California bill, an Amgen representative and Genentech lobbyist flanked Hill as the three answered questions from lawmakers on the Senate’s Business and Professions Committee.
The drug companies argued that the bill would protect consumers who receive biosimilars, while makers of generic drugs said it would make it harder for patients to get the lower-cost replacements.
In the last election cycle, Hill received almost $55,000 in campaign contributions from pharmaceutical companies and their industry groups. He told The Bee that SB 598 stems from his experience on the Assembly Committee on Biotechnology and knowledge gained through representing South San Francisco, a biotech industry hub where Genentech is headquartered.
The bill was written by California’s legislative counsel’s office, Hill said, adding that any similarities to bills in other states come from a desire to be consistent in crafting health policy.
“I’ve never seen a bill from Amgen or Genentech,” he said. “Nobody handed me a bill and said, ‘Here.’ ”
One interest group is trying to do just that with another piece of legislation. The San Manuel Indian tribe is drafting an Internet poker bill it expects to be carried by Sen. Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana.
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