Economy off, jobs scarce, but lobbying booms

Despite rumblings about California’s slow-moving economic recovery, payments to lobbyists from powerful special interests have never been better.

Clients with interests before state government have spent roughly $14.4 million per month during the first nine months of the year, which works out to about $482,000 a day, according to state financial disclosure records. Some political observers say the amount may even be higher.

Nearly 350 individual lobbyists and lobbying firms pulled in a record $130 million during the first three quarters of 2011.

And 2012, a major election year in California, promises even higher stakes.

State law requires lobbyists to register and report all payments for any efforts that are intended “for the purpose of influencing decisions of the state Legislature and state administrative agencies.”

Only registered lobbyists are subject to the disclosure rules. Others who often seek government action, such as communication consultants and strategists acting on behalf of clients, are not lobbyists – at least technically – and are not required to disclose their payments.

Ironically, much of the high-stakes lobbying payments in 2011 target the state budget, which is coming up short and may wind up even tighter in January, when a new spending plan is unveiled.

But while California’s budget pain continues to intensify, 2011 has been very, very good for lobbyists.

Some of the top-lobbying firms include Nielsen, Merksamer, Parrinello, Gross and Leoni, LLP (At $4.96 Million, No. 1 in the ranking), followed by KP Public Affairs ($4.63 million), which has long served as the top firm in the state. Next was Lang, Hansen, O’Malley and Miller Governmental Relations ($4.5 million). Platinum Advisers, a major power player for years at the capitol, ranked 7th in billing ($2.87 million).

The highest-paying interests included the California Teachers’ Association at $6.2 million, the Western States Petroleum Association at $3.28 million and the California State Council of Service Employees at $3.24 million.

The lobbying totals, when broken down, reflect the depth of the spending: They work out to about $20,062 per hour or $334.36 per minute, or about $5.57 per second.
That’s not bad for a recession, although only a limited few are benefiting.

“This is only good for special interests,” says Phillip Ung, spokesperson for California’s Common Cause, the independent, nonprofit advocacy group that targets campaign finances and serves as a liaison between grassroots organizations, coalition building and policy development.

“Corporations like to be able to connect with the Legislature because it essentially gets them the returns that they want. A legitimate question voters should ask is if their needs are really being heard,” he said.

Ung also said that Common Cause uses field poll data to confirm a direct correlation between money spent by lobbying interests and voters’ active opinions of the Legislature. He also said that his groups’ analyses are showing a higher level of spending than that recorded in the disclosure documents filed at the secretary of state’s office.

“While public opinion isn’t the lowest it’s ever been, spending is at an all-time high,” says Ung. Not all of the reports have been calculated yet, but we’re finding expenditures upwards of $215 million. And the year isn’t even over.”

Lobbyists who fail to report their transactions can wind up in hot water. Most recently, Frank Molina, the lone lobbying representative for Strategic Solutions Advisers, was fined $30,000 by the Fair Political Practices Commission for not reporting income figures totaling $840,000 within 12 consecutive quarters.

Representatives of the FPPC declined to comment on the latest lobbying figures.

Last Thursday, the FPPC released the latest draft of lobby-related spending regulations, targeting non-monetary sources of influential transactions that include tickets to events and travel accommodations.

In a letter to the FPPC, Chip Nielsen of Nielsen, Merksamer, Parrinello, Gross and Leoni, LLP, expressed dissatisfaction with some of the new gifting regulation standards, citing “narrow speech exceptions” and that “travel means more than to and from” an official business location.

Nielsen also suggested that such regulation changes should be made more accessible through the FPPC’s official website. “For persons trying to understand these regulations without retaining a CPAA Attorney,” noted Nielsen, “please consider editing each explanation.”

Ed’s Note: Deletes earlier ranking in 10th graf and replaces with top three interests..

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