Good-Government Groups Call for Reforms After Mercury News Investigation

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Responding to Mercury News reports documenting how outside interests exert undue influence on the state Legislature, political watchdog groups this week called for California legislators to make their calendars public to reveal lobbyists' intrusive role in lawmaking.

The proposal for transparency in the meetings that occur between lawmakers and lobbyists was among several reforms urged by outside groups, academics, and former legislators who acknowledge that the power of lobbyists in shaping legislation is excessive. On Sunday, the newspaper reported its most recent findings in an ongoing investigation of California lawmaking, which now includes an analysis of more than 9,000 pieces of legislation spanning two legislative sessions.

Despite the economic crisis facing California government, the newspaper review found, 37 percent of all bills introduced in the last legislative session, and more than half the bills signed into law, were "sponsored" by special interests who often write the bills, craft floor speeches and line up votes.

The Mercury News "framed an issue that has been grossly unattended to, and grossly ignored," said Doug Heller, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Consumer Watchdog. "Right now, too many lawmakers see their jobs as presenting ideas on behalf of interest groups rather than constituents," Heller said.

More disclosure

The group joins several other nonpartisan reform organizations that say the disclosure would be a critical step toward increasing public accountability.

Officials of other groups, including California Common Cause and the Center for Governmental Studies, also endorsed laws that would require legislators to make public their meetings with lobbyists.

Other reforms they are proposing include greater disclosure of campaign contributions from sponsors to legislators who carry their bills and an effort to repeal or limit the impact of the voter-passed term limits initiative. Both campaign money from sponsors, and term limits, were identified in the Mercury News examination as exacerbating the influence of lobbyists.

California Common Cause Executive Director Kathay Feng said that such reforms would "help ameliorate the worst examples of that kind of bought legislation."

But while there appeared widespread agreement that the outside interests have too much power, not everyone agreed on how to counteract it. Former Assembly Speaker Robert Hertzberg, co-chairman of a reform effort involving 200 community groups called California Forward, said he feared that a requirement that meetings be publicized would lead legislators and lobbyists to find ways around the law. "The idea of more disclosure would be nice, but it would be manipulated, it would create a gotcha game that would solve nothing."

'Private discussions'

Meanwhile, The Associated Press on Wednesday separately reported that California's legislators require less disclosure of themselves than they do of the governor and other state officials. The news service quoted Assembly Speaker John Pérez, D-Los Angeles, as saying he would review "options for increasing transparency in the Legislature."

But the news service quoted Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, as saying that while he supports transparency in government, "in order to do the business of the people, there has to be some room for candid, private discussions among and between colleagues," Steinberg said.

The reformers and academics interviewed this week by the Mercury News widely agreed that the newspaper's examination exposed a pernicious problem. "I hated sponsored bills," Hertzberg said of his time in office. "What happens with sponsored bills is a new legislator comes in, and the lobbyist gives you a turd of an idea that's been introduced 35 times."

He said he adopted a personal rule, requiring lobbyists to complete a form detailing how many times the legislative effort had been tried before, "so that newcomers aren't coming up with this stuff that's been recycled so lobbyists can continue to earn a fee."

Consumer Watchdog director Heller said reforms can be made, but that they might not end this pervasive practice in the state capital. "I do wonder where are the lawmakers who will stand up and say: 'I'm not going to have sponsored bills.' "

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact Karen de Sá at 408-920-5781 or [email protected].

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