A record $344 million was spent to influence California lawmakers and regulatory agencies during the two-year legislative session ending Dec. 31, according to a report issued Thursday.
With California’s economy booming and interest groups vying for millions available for new state programs, spending on lobbying during the period exceeded by $52 million the previous record set in 1997-98.
The California Teachers Association topped the list with spending of $5.7 million. Pacific Telesis spent $5.1 million; Western States Petroleum Association, $3.8 million; California Chamber of Commerce, $3.5 million; and Edison International, $3.1 million.
“The record (spending) continues to feed public cynicism of elected officials,” said Secretary of State Bill Jones, whose office issued the report. “Although it’s important for all voices to be heard, it’s disturbing to think the people and organizations behind those voices need to spend such vast sums to make their point.”
The report also ranked spending by subject area, with government issues attracting about $53 million; health, $41.4 million; manufacturing and industrial, $34.5 million; finance and insurance, $29.6 million; and education, $27.4 million.
California was not struggling with an energy crisis during much of the two-year period, but lobbying on utility and oil-gas issues attracted $19.7 million and $13.6 million, respectively. Both ranked in the state’s top 10 spending list.
Dennis Loper, a lobbyist and president of the Institute of Governmental Advocates, cautioned against concluding that higher spending on lobbying translates into worse government or less independent policy-makers.
Lobbying is a vital part of the political process, Loper said.
“It comes down to one thing: The vote is still with the (legislators), and I think it’s important that they’re able to get enough information for the decisions they make,” he said.
State law does not restrict spending for any issue or during any time period. Limits are set on gifts, however, with lobbyists barred from spending more than $10 per month for any lawmaker, said Roman Porter of the Fair Political Practices Commission.
The statistics released Thursday cover money spent both on lobbying state policy-makers and on providing information or testimony to state administrative bodies, such as the Public Utilities Commission. It does not include campaign contributions.
Wayne Johnson, president of the California Teachers Association, was not surprised that his group topped the spending list. Teachers donate a portion of their salaries to take their case to Sacramento, he said.
California ranks far below the national average in per-pupil funding, needs thousands of new teachers, struggles with outdated facilities and educates millions of kids who don’t speak English fluently or who have other special needs, Johnson said.
“We’re heavily engaged in legislation, and there’s probably more legislation dealing with education than any other subject area,” Johnson said. “When the vast majority of money comes out of Sacramento, you have to access that system and influence that system.”
Lobbyist Fred L. Main of the California Chamber of Commerce said the $3.5 million spent by the group for lobbying was not extraordinary.
“California has the fifth-largest economy in the world, and over 6,000 pieces of legislation with a direct impact on the business community are introduced during a two-year session,” he said. “There’s a lot of work to do and a lot of information to be dispersed.”
Edison International, which ranked fifth on the spending list, is the parent company of a public utility that accumulated billions in debt during the energy crisis and is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Spokesman Kevin Kelley said the company had not seen the state’s lobbying report and could not comment.
The state’s top five lobbying firms, ranked by payments received from clients, were Kahl/Pownall Advocates, $8.5 million; Robinson & Associates, $5.5 million; Nielsen, Merksamer, Parrinello, Mueller, & Naylor, $4.9 million; Governmental Advocates, $4.7 million; and Carpenter Snodgrass & Associates, $4.6 million.
Doug Heller of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights said term limits may be partly responsible for the record sums spent on lobbying activities statewide.
“The less experience a legislator has, the more aggressive the lobbying gets, because oftentimes lawmakers who have been around a while know the issues and can’t be bullied,” Heller said.
Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said lawmakers must make a special effort to hear and understand their constituents as corporations and special-interest groups spend record sums on lobbying.
“It’s important for elected officials to get out in their districts, hold neighborhood coffees, and hear from people who aren’t professional lobbyists,” he said.