Only in Sacramento would two of the most talked-about bills of the year involve cruise ships and helium balloons. But the fights over these bills are getting notice inside the Capitol not for the policy proposals, or even their novelty factor, but for the lobbyist wars that have erupted around them.
They also conjure up a rarely-spoken but often whispered-about practice in the stateís lobbying world ñ when a client hires a high-powered lobbyist, the client is not just getting an advocate, they are investing in the support of the lobbyistsí other clients.
In addition, these legislative fights illustrate the power and influence certain interest groups have over individual legislators, and sometimes, entire legislative committees.
The proposal by Sen. Joe Simitian, D-San Jose, to create a new team of ìocean rangersî that would help assist with criminal investigations aboard cruise ships has turned into a lobbying war. The measure passed out of the Assembly Judiciary Committee Tuesday, but is expected to face a tough vote in Assembly Public Safety on June 24, in part because of one Capitol powerbrokerís influence over that committeeís members.
The public safety committee is chaired by Jose Solorio, D-Santa Ana. The committee has slots for seven members, but one of those positions is vacant. That means that if any of the committeeís four Democrats oppose a bill, they can usually ensure that measureís defeat, assuming the panelís two Republicans also oppose the measure.
That has given one lobbying group in particular ñ the Peace Officers Research Association of California ñ and their lobbyists, Aaron Read and Associates — great influence in the committee. While PORAC has sparred with Senate Public Safety Chairwoman Gloria Romero, D-Los Angeles, they have often turned to the Assembly committee, and Solorio, to help kill legislation the group does not like.
PORAC made Solorio its legislator of the year in 2007, has donated to his political campaigns and has sponsored a number of Solorio-authored bills. Solorio also lead the charge last year against one of PORACís most highly-targeted bills, Romeroís SB 1019, which would have made more information public about police officers under investigation. That bill died last year in Solorioís committee without a motion on the bill.
Now, lobbyists from the firm are hoping to use their leverage in public safety to help kill Sen. Joe Simitianís ìocean ranger bill.î
Read said he has heard the whispers that his firm somehow influenced PORACís decision to oppose the Simitian bill, but that speculation is baseless.
ìI had a meeting with Sen. Simitian on the bill, and it sounds like they thought we put (PORAC) up to it somehow,î said Read. ìThatís totally unequivocally not the case. They analyze bills on their own, and make policy judgment calls on their own. There is nothing untoward or nefarious about their opposition to the bill.î
That was echoed by PORAC president Ron Cottingham. ìI think itís a little ridiculous to suggest our position is connected to another client of a firm that weíve hired,î Cottingham said. ìThatís not the way we operate. That would actually lessen our credibility if we did things that way. The one thing you have in this business is your credibility.
Cottingham added that in his five years as PORAC president, ìnever, ever has anything ever come up where thereís been a request to influence our position on a bill because of a client situationî from ARA.
Making the fight even more interesting to Capitol insiders is the husband vs. wife ìlove boatî sideshow among the billís advocates. ARAís Randy Perry is representing the cruise lines, while Perryís wife, lobbyist Amy Brown, is working for the billís passage.
Sponsors of the bill, which include victims rights groups and many labor unions, say these ships often have lax security and are ill equipped to handle some of the serious crimes that occur aboard the ships, often in international waters.
Simitian says crimes aboard cruise ships are woefully under-reported. And as he presented his bill before the Assembly Judiciary Committee Tuesday, he brought with him a woman whose 12-year-old daughter was raped by a ship employee to underscore the severity of the problem.
As he presented his bill before the Assembly Judiciary Committee Tuesday, Simitian accused the cruise ship owners of sweeping these problems under the rug. ìThey have a strong public relations incentive to deny the problem,î Simitian said.
Cruise companies have balked at placing new law enforcement officers on their ships. They are opposed to the measure, and cite jurisdictional issues of California-based law enforcement officers to perform any public safety duty beyond the state lines.
According to filings from the Secretary of Stateís office, the Cruise Line International Association hired Aaron Read and Associates to help out with their lobbying efforts on April 17. One month later, when the bill came up for a vote on the Senate floor, PORAC sent a letter announcing their opposition to the bill.
ìWe got involved because Sen. Simitianís chief of staff called us,î said Cottingham. ìIím not sure that I see the necessity for the bill. I donít believe itís workable.
Cottingham ticked off a long list of concerns with the bill, including jurisdictional questions and concerns that the bill would force the state to ìpull officers off of the streets in California, where they could be fighting other crimes.î
Other law enforcement groups, including the California State Sheriffs Association and the California Statewide Law Enforcement Association are supporting the bill.
Simitian acknowledged Tuesdayís hearing in Public Safety will be difficult. ìDo I think the opponents are ready to capitualte? No. But weíll keep pitching,î he said. ìThis is one of those issues that has really captured my heart. If we donít make it this year, Iím prepared to revisit the issue next year.î
Another fight in the Capitol, this one over mylar balloons has also turned into a must-watch political theater, and has turned into a sparring match between two of the stateís top labor lobbyists.
Scottís SB 1499 is supported by State Association of Electrical Workers, whose members claim removing metallic balloons that get snared in electrical wires poses risks to their workers. The electrical workers are represented in the Capitol by the firm of Carter, Wetch & Associates.
Leading the opposition to the measure is The Balloon Council, a political association that most Capitol insiders never knew existed. On April 1, The Balloon Council hired the lobbying firm of Broad & Gusman to defeat the bill. The firm is one of the preeminent labor lobbying firms in the state, representing the Hotel and Restaurant Employees, United Food and Commercial Workers and Teamsters, all of whom oppose the bill.
But Barry Broad says his largest unions have a clear interest in seeing the balloon bill die.
ìThe Teamsters are in the grocery industry. The industry is very concerned about this bill,î says Braod explaining the unionís opposition. ìTheyíve asked us to oppose this bill. We donít want to criminalize the activity of clerks and other people. Itís another one of these bills that makes clerks into police.î
Broad says before he takes on a new client, he checks for potential conflicts of interest with his labor employers.
ìI donít take a lot of business clients, and when I do, I only take them when they donít compete with labor,î Broad said. ìAnd in this case, itís pretty clear where my two largest unions would be on this issue. For any new client, it starts with the question, ëDo I have a conflict of interest?íî
While the electrical workers are opposed to the bill, Broad said he checked with his labor clients before taking on the balloon council as a client.
Coincidentally, Broadís firm is working in favor of the cruise ship bill, and questioned other lobbyists for taking on clients who promote positions that conflict with the interests of other clients.
ìThatís weird that somehow PORAC is against law enforcement,î on SB 1582, he said. ìI donít do that stuff with my clients. Itís not like Iíve got the machinists opposed to this bill. Itís the unions that are in the grocery and hospitality industry.î