SACRAMENTO — Imagine: At a time when California is lurching from crisis to crisis, a legislator has an idea to make life better. He puts together a bill, gathers support and shepherds it into law.
If only Sacramento worked like that. Instead, it often works like this: 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.
Although lawmakers in recent years have routinely failed to grapple with health care, the state budget and other matters of public interest, they’ve managed to do the bidding of the private interests who tout sponsored bills at an impressive clip.
A Mercury News analysis found that in 2007-08, the most recent complete two-year legislative session, more than 1,800 bills — about 39% of the total — were sponsored by outside interests. And those sponsored bills made up 60% of legislation passed into law.
This is how plumbing manufacturers ensured that industry-friendly labs — and not state regulators — would conduct the testing that determines whether drinking faucets sold in California are lead-free. This is how a Los Angeles County billionaire overcame a legal challenge over whether his plans for a new football stadium violated the state’s environmental protection law.
Recalling his first encounters with lobbyists seeking legislative backing for their bills, former Assembly Member Joe Canciamilla said, “It’s like being in a Middle Eastern bazaar. You are surrounded by hawkers saying, ‘Take this one, no, take this one, no, I’ve got a better one over here.’ The openness of that — the ‘oh yeah, that’s the way things are done’ attitude — was the most shocking.”
Legislators, continued Pittsburg funeral home director Canciamilla, “are supposed to be the buffer between the interest groups and the public — and that buffer no longer exists. Now, they’re a direct conduit.”
The Mercury News analysis, the first ever undertaken of sponsored bills in California, revealed:
Sponsored bills swamp the Legislature. They amounted to 42% of the bills introduced in the Assembly and one-third of the Senate bills.
Profit-seeking bills abound. While advocacy groups, trade associations and government agencies also sponsor legislation, more than 500 of the sponsored bills introduced in the 2007-08 session came from private industries and industry trade groups, often seeking to increase market share, repel regulations or limit lawsuits.
Sponsored bills succeed. Almost half of the 1,883 bills that were sponsored in the last session became law; about 20% of the 2,982 bills that had no listed sponsor became law.
Everybody does it. Out of 122 legislators who served at least partial terms in 2007-08, just one — Sen. Tom McClintock, R-Thousand Oaks — refused to introduce any sponsored bills. Democrats introduced more than Republicans, but Republicans introduced a larger percentage of bills sponsored by private interests.
Lobbyists have long been known in California as the Third House, referring to their entrenched status alongside the Legislature’s two official houses, the Assembly and Senate. But through interviews with current and former legislators and aides, as well as lobbyists and outside government experts, the Mercury News documented a changed pattern: Today, lobbyists function almost as a shadow legislature, pulling the strings at every turn for short-term lawmakers who have become accustomed to letting private interests monopolize the public debate. At the center of this reality is the sponsored bill.
Here is one example of how sponsored bills shape the process of lawmaking — allowing private agendas to overwhelm the public interest.
In 2007, the Legislature took up a bill to authorize the spending of a $2.8 billion affordable housing bond approved in a voter referendum. The bill initially sought to ensure that projects would be efficient and geographically diverse, and that they would reduce homelessness.
But at the urging of a lobbyist for the sports and entertainment giant Anschutz Entertainment Group, a different, sponsored version of the bill suddenly appeared — amid a flurry of bills on the last days of the legislative session. Several legislators whose names were attached to the bill dropped off, leaving only Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, D-Los Angeles, as legislative backer of the amended bill. It cleared the Senate after midnight, and the Assembly at 3:26 a.m.
Hugh Bower, the lead staff member of the Assembly Committee on Housing and Community Development, was stunned when the bill came up that night; he had been told the issue was dead. There was such chaos, Bower recalls, that one committee member still thought the next day that the amended bill had died.
What was Anschutz’s interest? Its version of the bill allowed some affordable housing funds to be used for parks, landscaping and fancy sidewalks in the neighborhood around the company-owned Staples Center in downtown L.A.
Anschutz insisted its changes would let any “Business Improvement District” — a specially created association of property owners and government agencies — apply for the funds. But only the district near the Staples Center did, receiving the maximum award of $30 million.
Christine Minnehan, director of legislative advocacy for the Western Center on Law and Poverty, lamented the award, saying many affordable housing projects were awarded less than half that amount.
She called the outcome “a theft of public funds, and a deception of the voters.”
For as long as anyone now in Sacramento can remember, the California Legislature has identified outside parties pushing bills.
Legislative historians asked by the Mercury News to research the practice say it dates to at least the 1940s.
Officials in some other states, told of California’s practice, greeted it as an admirable form of public disclosure.
In Mississippi “there is no mention of groups who support the bill, even if they drafted the bill and requested a legislator to sponsor it,” said Barbara Powell, lobbyist for Common Cause Mississippi. Jane Pinsky, director of the North Carolina Coalition for Lobbying & Government Reform, said, “We really have no transparency on who is behind legislation in North Carolina.”
But in California, it is quite clear that full disclosure has reinforced the system of sponsorship, legitimizing the influence of special interests.
Where other states, and the U.S. Congress, use the term “sponsor” to mean the legislators who carry the bill, in California the term refers to the outside party; the legislator who introduces the bill is called the “author.”
“Author is really a misnomer because the real author is the special interest group,” said Keith Richman, a health-care executive and former Republican Assembly member.
Many legislators say they take only ideas and guidance from sponsors, but maintain control over the bill. “Our job is to be deliberative and have our legislative hat on so we can make good judgments,” insisted Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, one of the leading authors of privately sponsored bills.
But dozens of interviews inside and outside the capital reveal that legislators have often surrendered their role. Lobbyists working on behalf of sponsors craft original bill language. They write fact sheets for legislators and their staff.
They even write the speeches lawmakers deliver on the floor extolling bills. “It’s common knowledge that the floor statements are written by lobbyists,” said lobbyist Jackson Gualco, previously a special assistant to former Assembly Speaker Willie Brown. “Some staff members change it, other times it’s word for word.”
Lobbyists solicit votes, suggest and evaluate amendments, and seek to win support from the governor’s office.
When the legislator who introduced the bill goes to committee hearings to present and defend the proposed legislation, the lobbyists and sponsors typically sit alongside, and often commandeer the proceedings.
Some observers argue these private interest bills do, ultimately, benefit at least a portion of the public. Thad Kousser, associate professor of political science at UC San Diego, said legislators who introduce sponsored bills on behalf of industries are doing exactly what they are sent to Sacramento to do: represent the interests of their district. “What better way,” he asked, to help “the employers of their constituents?”
But former state senator McClintock, the sole legislator who did not introduce a single sponsored bill in the last session, argues that constituents’ interests have little to do with it. McClintock, now a congressman, said: “It’s a general rule that sponsors are bureaucracies seeking more power, or companies seeking more money.”
As the influence of lobbyists has grown, plenty of groups, in addition to private companies and industry organizations, have taken up sponsoring bills.
Unions do it. Government agencies do it. Environmental groups do it. “We sponsor bills and I’m very proud of them,” said Sierra Club California director Bill Magavern. The Sierra Club, for instance, was co-sponsor of a bill that revamped the process for recycling and disposing of mercury-tainted thermostats.
“There’s nothing wrong with sponsored bills conceptually,” said Assembly Member Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, who introduced 25 sponsored bills last session, seven of them sponsored by private interests. “There are lots of sponsors from the Sierra Club to the oil and gas industry — and everyone in between who think up good ideas and bring them to legislators every year.”
Huffman is one of many legislators who argue that not all sponsored bills are created evil. But even if liberals might applaud sponsored environmental legislation, and conservatives might cheer bills from the California District Attorneys Association, government experts say these efforts have the same problems as more brazen legislation.
“It’s undemocratic to have interest groups writing legislation,” said Dorie Apollonio, assistant professor at UC San Francisco’s School of Pharmacy and an expert on influence peddling. “If we’re unhappy with what legislators are doing, we throw the bums out,” she said, in contrast to lobbyists who do not answer to the public.
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