Lobbyists play huge role in bills
Karen de Sa, San Jose Mercury News
Created: 07/17/2010 07:10:37 AM PDT

Like all newly elected lawmakers, Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes arrived in Sacramento needing two things to ensure his political success: legislative achievements and campaign money.

If he established himself as a political force, the Los Angeles-area Democrat might breeze to re-election in two years and rise up the legislative ranks. And sure enough, there were folks who could help him along – the throng of lobbyists offering bill ideas on behalf of their corporate clients.

In his first term in office, beginning in 2007, Fuentes introduced 11 bills that had been crafted and pushed by those lobbyists – one of the highest totals of any legislator in a session where much special interest legislation was passed while many statewide problems went unaddressed.

And in the years since, he has reaped tens of thousands of dollars in campaign money from bill sponsors, won re-election, and snagged plum appointments to Assembly committees.

So it goes in Sacramento, where state lawmakers, especially the most inexperienced, increasingly depend on outside interests for their success.

The Mercury News reported last week that sponsored bills made up more than a third of the proposed laws introduced in the state Legislature in 2007-08, the most recently completed session.

The paper’s analysis also helps explain the heady combination of pressures and enticements that lead legislators to rely so heavily on sponsored bills, favoring private interests rather than the public interest they were sent to Sacramento to serve.

The analysis – including a review of every bill introduced in 2007 and 2008, inspection of state campaign finance reports and interviews with dozens of legislators, staff members, lobbyists and outside experts – reveals:

# Bill sponsors are big contributors. The Mercury News identified $1.2 million in the last session contributed by sponsors to the campaigns of legislators who introduced their bills.

# The legislators with the most sponsored bills collect the most contributions. Of the nine legislators who introduced 10 or more bills sponsored by private interests in the 2007-08 session, seven were in the elite group that each received $20,000 or more from sponsors in that session.

# New lawmakers carry the most sponsored bills. During the 2007-08 session, sponsored bills made up a greater percentage of the bills introduced by freshman legislators than by those with more tenure. And the bills are more prevalent in the Assembly, where legislators are less experienced, than in the Senate.

# Sponsorship has thrived in the era of term limits. In the 1993-94 session, just before the state’s term limits law took effect, sponsored bills made up 30 percent of all bills introduced. In the most recent session, that percentage jumped to 39 percent.

Approved by voters in 1990, the term limits law – which restricts Assembly members to six years and state senators to eight – was pitched as a tonic to prevent corruption. The ballot argument for Proposition 140 promised it would “put an end to the Sacramento web of special favors and interests.”

But with the growing dominance of sponsored bills, many insiders now worry that term limits has instead increased the dependence of inexperienced lawmakers and staff on the lobbyists who help them get bills passed.

“Imagine what it’s like for lobbyists when one-third of the members of the Assembly are in their first or second year in the Capitol and you’ve been around for 30 years,” said Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco. “What do you think the balance of power is?”

Attack of the lobbyists

One after another, legislators described the experience of arriving in Sacramento under pressure to make things happen.

“When you are first up here you are terrified,” testified Assemblyman Tom Berryhill, R-Modesto, at one recent hearing.

Or as San Francisco Assembly Democrat Fiona Ma conveyed in an interview: “If you can’t get a bill signed in the first two years, then I’m going to have an opponent who will say, what is Fiona Ma doing?”

And what the legislators quickly discover are the multitude of lobbyists who work to get to know them.

Mountain View Assemblyman Paul Fong recalled his surprise upon his arrival in Sacramento that lobbyists were everywhere, offering invitations for meals and events – even an expenses-paid helicopter tour.

The new legislators also discover that those lobbyists have the legislative knowledge they lack.

The Mercury News analysis found that the least-experienced legislators tend to be the most willing to carry sponsored bills.

The analysis of the 2007-08 session identified outside sponsors for 47 percent of the bills introduced by Assembly members serving their first term, compared to 40 percent of the bills from those who had served in previous sessions.

On the Senate side, where almost every lawmaker had previous legislative experience, sponsored bills made up 35 percent of the total.

Term-limit talent drain

Struggling with their own inexperience, lawmakers have another handicap that makes it hard to resist the lure of lobbyists: the inexperience of legislative staff.

Studies show turnover among legislative staff has more than doubled since Proposition 140 passed. Not only did the term-limit proposition cut the legislative budget by almost 40 percent, it also has eliminated job security for staffers as their bosses come and go. As a result, many former longtime aides have become lobbyists themselves, moving to far more lucrative jobs with lobbying firms eager to draw on their insider access and experience.

Said Ray LeBov, who spent 17 years on staff in the Capitol before taking a job as a private lobbyist, “The Third House often offers greater rewards for the highest quality staff, and that’s exacerbated by the long-term employment prospects being different in the post term-limit environment.”

Those veterans have been replaced by a new breed of staffers, many of whom are fresh out of college or have worked only on the local level. They find themselves ill-prepared for the Capitol, said Dorie Apollonio, an assistant professor at the UC San Francisco School of Pharmacy and an expert on the legislative influence of interest groups.

A 2004 report by the Public Policy Institute of California stated that some new legislators said their staff “don’t even know how to collect the mail, let alone draft complex legislation.” It is a sharp contrast from the past, when legislators and their staffs served lengthy tenures, often earning them expertise in policymaking honed over time.

In such an environment, it is perhaps not surprising that the lobbyists end up writing many bills. “We rely on input from the Third House in sponsoring bills because they have so much experience,” explained Assembly Democrat Fong of Mountain View.

Chris Mooney, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois’ Institute of Government and Public Affairs, considers that reliance well-placed. Lobbyists tend to be the most knowledgeable people on their issues, he said, making their expertise invaluable. “I’d hate to have lawmakers writing these things,” he said.

But many good-government advocates disagree.

“The term lawmaker should be pretty clear that these are people who are supposed to write the laws,” said David Levinthal of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Responsive Politics. “If lobbyists were lawmakers then they would go by a different name.”

In an effort to gauge the impact of term limits on sponsored bills, the Mercury News examined the role that sponsored bills played in the 1993-94 session, the first recorded in the state’s online legislation database.

Fuentes gets help

For a look at just how influential the sponsors of bills can be, consider two days in the legislative life of Fuentes, the San Fernando Valley politician on a fast track.

The story emerges on videotapes of Senate committee sessions from June 2008. Fuentes was presenting four bills that had already passed the Assembly. All of them were sponsored, three by corporations that were seeking special help from the Legislature.

The private sponsors were SunCal, a real estate developer, which wanted to triple the potential penalty for buyers of high-end condominium units who back out of pre-construction contracts; Symantec, the software security firm, which wanted to exempt online retailers from a law that prohibits sellers from gathering personal data from credit card purchasers; and Venture Vehicles, which wanted the three-wheeled, partially electric motor vehicles it was developing to have access to carpool lanes.

In the hearings, the lobbyists for those companies not only gave testimony, as other supporters and opponents do. Instead, as is common practice, they sometimes sat right next to Fuentes as he presented the bills, answering questions and offering guidance.

In one session of the Senate Judiciary Committee, as the committee finished with one bill and moved to the next one, Fuentes simply remained seated while the lobbyist for SunCal vacated the chair next to him and lobbyists for Symantec and the high-tech advocacy organization TechNet sat down.

Throughout, legislators and witnesses addressed “the sponsor and the author” as equal partners in the bills. And Fuentes and his cadre of lobbyists acted the part, pushing the legislation and responding to concerns in lock-step.

In the judiciary committee, for instance, legislators objected that provisions of the Symantec bill would toss out of court some ongoing privacy lawsuits against online retailers. But Fuentes and TechNet lobbyist Fred Main pushed for approval anyway, arguing the bill could be rewritten to minimize the problem even though committee staffers said it could not.

And in a meeting of the Senate Transportation and Housing Committee, one senator bristled at Fuentes’ argument that Venture’s three-wheeler should be allowed in carpool lanes because it was, essentially, a motorcycle. But neither Fuentes nor lobbyist Paul Gladfelty gave an inch.

“If you were to see one of these in action and get in one, you’d recognize that this is a motorcycle,” Fuentes said. “The thing leans, it moves, it darts in and out of traffic.”

In the end, the privately sponsored bills Fuentes presented in the two days of hearings went 2-1, with the Venture bill and an amended form of the SunCal legislation passing the committee and ultimately becoming law, and the Symantec bill failing because of the lawsuit concern.

Fuentes received a $3,600 contribution from SunCal the very week the bill passed both the Senate and Assembly. And two months later, campaign expense reports show, Symantec contributed $2,000 to Fuentes’ re-election campaign.

Fuentes, who was one of the two most junior members of the Legislature in 2007-08, declined repeated requests from the Mercury News to talk about his work with the interest groups that sponsor his bills.

As one of the top three Assembly members for introducing bills sponsored by private interests in 2007-08, Fuentes developed a legislative track record and won supporters whose contributions helped him build influence. The newspaper analysis identified $28,600 in campaign contributions in his 2008 re-election effort from sponsors whose bills Fuentes introduced.

Facing no real threat to his re-election either in 2008 or this year, Fuentes has been generous in passing out contributions to the Democratic Party and candidates in more hotly-contested races – more than $150,000 from March 2009 through May 11 of this year.

That generosity did not go unrewarded; he now serves as chairman of the powerful Assembly Appropriations Committee.

Where the money flows

The Mercury News examination cataloged $1.2 million in contributions from sponsors of bills, or their political action committees, during the 2007-2008 session.

The bulk of it – $980,000 – came from sponsors that were private companies, trade associations or business groups.

The newspaper found 10 Assembly members who received $20,000 or more in donations from private interest sponsors of bills they introduced in 2007-208. All of them had introduced at least five bills on behalf of those sponsors; and four of them, including Fuentes, had introduced at least 10 bills on their behalf.

On the Senate side, five members received $20,000 or more from private-interest sponsors. Three of them introduced at least 15 sponsored bills.

Nobody was more successful at raising money from sponsors than Assemblyman Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina, an optometrist, the Mercury News found. Hernandez received more than $108,000 in donations from sponsors, including $73,300 from private sponsors of his bills.

That included $7,200 from California nurse practitioners, after Hernandez introduced a bill they sponsored to permit them to prescribe controlled drugs, without a doctor’s supervision, and $28,800 from optometrists after Hernandez introduced their bill authorizing them to consult or deliver health care by telephone or computer.

Lou Correa, D-Santa Ana, exceeded all other senators in raising money from sponsors in the 2007-08 session, the review found. Correa received $67,300 from sponsors, which included:

# $10,200 from the state optometrists for introducing their bill to broaden what they could treat, a measure that ophthalmologists, surgeons and psychiatrists warned could endanger patient health.

# $4,000 from life insurance companies that sponsored his bill to create national standards for life and disability insurance policies – a bill critics warned could have stripped California consumers of protections.

# $11,200 by apartment owner organizations; he introduced their bill permitting them to allocate water bills among tenants.

Just like a lawmaker

In California, like other states, laws prohibit legislators from taking money from special interests to push legislation. But there are no laws to prevent what else happens with sponsored bills.

It is not illegal for lobbyists to write the bills. They are permitted to engage in the legislative process, in many ways, just as if they were a legislator, lacking only the ability to cast a vote. And they can advise clients to hand out gifts and campaign contributions to legislators.

The actions cross the line only if the exchange between a legislator and a lobbyist – whether over drinks at a fundraiser, or in state offices as bills are being hashed out – leads to a specific agreement that the lobbyist will provide money in return for legislative action.

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