More On Outside Interests Inside Sacramento

Mercury News updates "sponsored bills" investigation

The San Jose Mercury News’s Karen de Sá has filed an update to her excellent series on “sponsored bills” in Sacramento—that is, bills backed by, crafted, and sometimes drafted by lobbyists. (Here’s my hat tip to the project back in July). Apparently, de Sá and her editors were undeterred by “grumblings in the Sacramento press corps,” as reported last month by my colleague, Joel, that—yawn!—her investigation, “the first-ever detailed analysis of sponsored bills,” revealed little that wasn’t already known (by, as The Sacramento Bee’s’s Dan Morain put it when speaking in praise of the project, all of “a thousand out of the thirty-seven million who in live in California.”)

For the update, de Sá analyzed bills from the most recent legislative session in Sacramento, such that the Mercury News database, she writes,

now encompasses two full sessions and more than 9,000 pieces of legislation, establishing a pattern, not merely a single-session aberration. It shows that outside interests dominate Sacramento to an extent almost unimaginable outside the state’s capital, but well-accepted within it.

Here’s de Sá’s uplifting lede:

By most measures, California’s Legislature performed dismally this past session. It passed a budget a record 100 days late, and grossly underestimated the fiscal crisis — a situation so severe that lawmakers returned to the Capitol earlier this month for a special session to grapple with a $6.1 billion deficit.

But the dire situation did not inhibit legislators from carrying bills crafted by outside interests who showered them with campaign contributions, a continuing Mercury News investigation of the California legislative process shows. While larger problems festered, lawmakers in the two-year session just ended pushed lobbyist-driven “sponsored bills” — bills that are not simply backed by interest groups but often actually written by them — at the same furious pace of the previous session.

Sponsored bills accounted for almost 40 percent of all legislation introduced and 50 percent of bills that became law. And in the recession-stained session of 2009 and 2010, these bills took on a particular character: In the name of creating jobs, lawmakers embraced special-interest legislation that would upend environmental protections, block lawsuits, allow corporations to reduce fees and accountability, and increase consumer costs.

And, de Sá’s description of how one influence safeguard isn’t doing much actual safeguarding might, possibly, provoke more than a tell us something we don’t know shrug from at least some of some thirty-seven million Californians:

Some Sacramento veterans contend that the public is protected from undue influence by checks within the system. After all, while lobbyists may write initial versions of bills, proposed legislation goes to the Office of Legislative Counsel to be formally “drafted.” And sponsors are barred from talking to Legislative Counsel staff, absent a waiver from the legislator introducing the bill.

But those protections turned out not to be the safeguard that critics envision.

Waivers are freely granted, and legislative counsel staff tell of many instances in which lobbyists, with legislators’ approval, negotiated language directly, leaving legislators and their staff out of the give-and-take.

Some lobbyists draft legislation for their clients so precisely that the Legislative Counsel’s office finds little reason to change the proposed bills.

“I’ve been lobbying for 30 years and virtually all the bills I draft — they go to Legislative Counsel and they come out virtually exactly the way we sent them in,” said lobbyist Carl Brakensiek.

As Joel noted last month, the Mercury News has created, particularly with its online database, a story-generator for other California news outlets. The LA Weekly, for one, found a story in the Mercury News update, as it did from the July installment, and gave each a yawn-busting headline: in July, “The Worst Legislator in California;” and, this week, “$20,000 buys California laws.” The latter story stems from this piece of de Sá’s latest report:

As was true in the earlier session, money from sponsors flowed to legislators who introduced their bills. The legislators who introduced the most private-interest-sponsored legislation — Assembly members who introduced 10 or more bills, senators who introduced seven or more — received, on average, more than $20,000 from private interest-sponsors whose bills they carried.

NBC News Los Angeles’s “Prop Zero” blog found de Sá’s findings not ho-hum but “devastating,” running a summary today under the headline, “Half the bills are bought and paid for,” and concluding:

[P]erhaps it’s time to put in place a long-suggested reform idea: make lawmakers dress like NASCAR stock-car drivers, with the logos of all their sponsors on their clothing for the world to see.

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.