San Jose Mercury News social services reporter Karen de Sa earned accolades this July for an investigative series which revealed that over a third of the bills passed through the California legislature in the two-year 2007-08 session were “sponsored” by outside organizations. Think the Sierra Club, the unions, the California Manufacturers Association, “big oil.” Leading a team of five, de Sa showed that Sacramento lobbyists actually write the bills that sometimes-hapless legislators introduce into the chamber and then funnel them through to the governor’s desk to be signed into law—or not. A second part to the series explained how term limits has helped facilitate the practice. Here’s how she explained the Sacramento sausage-making in her report:
A lobbyist has an idea to make life better—but only for his client. The lobbyist writes the bill, shops for a willing lawmaker to introduce it and lines up the support. The legislator? He has to do little more than show up and vote.
This is the path of the “sponsored bill,” a method of lawmaking little noticed outside California’s capital but long favored on the inside. In many states lobbyists influence legislators; in California, they have—quite baldly—taken center stage in lawmaking.
The series ran in all of Mercury News owner MediaNews Group’s California papers, and de Sa remembers reader reaction was “off the charts” and “across-the-board.” “It struck a chord with people who were frustrated with the way government works but don’t really understand it,” she says. “I even got invited to speak for the Tea Party!” Online, the story came with an impressive database in which curious policy-watchers could (and still can) search the record of each legislator to see how many sponsored bills they had introduced, and by whom the bills had been sponsored.
It was the perfect tool for local outlets after a story, and yesterday, Village Voice Media-owned L.A. Weekly hit stands with a feature headlined, “The Worst Legislator in California.” Someone had been rummaging in de Sa’s database and they’d found San Fernando state assemblyman Felipe Fuentes. Reporter David Futch writes:
The 39-year-old Democrat who represents Sylmar, Pacoima, Lakeview Terrace and Arleta in the California Assembly was listed as the “author” of 24 proposed bills in the 2007-08 legislative sessions. Yet despite all his bustle, Fuentes could easily win a nomination as the worst legislator in California — quite an achievement in a 120-member body with a 10 percent approval rating — because 10 of his laws were ghostwritten by special-interest groups.
But as de Sa begins work on a second “sponsored bill” series which will look at the 2009-10 session and expand the database, and the L.A. Weekly plans for more legislator exposés, there are grumblings in the Sacramento press corps that there’s no real news here. “This is an old story,” says Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters, who has worked in the capitol since 1975. “People come in from out of town, discover something, and they want to hype their story by saying that there is something the capitol press corps is not telling you.”
Futch’s L.A. Weekly story came about precisely because Stewart, the paper’s news editor, believed the capitol press corps was keeping “sponsored bills” to themselves, perhaps unintentionally. “I worked in Sacramento for several years and I saw a very isolated bunch of journalists who had totally missed the Gray Davis budget disaster; they’re constantly missing things,” she told me. A bit more than a week after de Sa’s series ran, Stewart sent the reporter an e-mail, the subject line of which read, “LA Weekly News editor and fan.” The e-mail mixed flattery, appreciation, and a touch of “embarrassing but honest praise”:
In my mind’s eye, you are like Diana, the godddess of the hunt. You have true cojones. Everybody else covering Sacramento for the past decade was just a bit asleep, almost all of the time. I believe the media is playing a major role in the slowly decaying democratic system in Sacramento.
Stewart then asked if de Sa would share some raw data with her, and where the Weekly could find the best information on the Mercury News site for their story on Fuentes, who was singled out in de Sa’s report. “We do not have the staff to undertake our own number-crunching and database searching,” wrote Stewart. “We do have the staff to take the findings about which electeds are serving as fronts for special interests, and do some great stories on it, however.” When I spoke to Stewart yesterday from L.A., she said, “I encourage every newspaper in California to look at this database the same way.”