Corporations, unions and other interest groups have spent $2.9 billion on lobbying in Sacramento over the past 12 years.
We know that because a landmark initiative passed by voters in 1974 the California Political Reform Act requires reports and gives the public a glimpse into how the sausage known as legislation gets made.
But a lot has changed in the nearly three decades since the initiative became law. The influence industry has changed, and much of what happens in lobbying today is hidden.
For instance, the public has no idea how more than a quarter of that $2.9 billion was spent. That because $794 million of those expenditures were nonitemized. Perhaps it was spent on rent. More likely, it was used to pay for TV or radio ads to influence public opinion, to gin up citizen interest in Astroturf campaigns related to legislation. Maybe part of it went to public affairs consultants, strategists and attorneys. Though the specifics aren't clear, you can assume the money was spent to shape legislation and policy.
The Fair Political Practices Commission under Chairwoman Ann Ravel has embarked on a worthwhile project to overhaul the lobbying disclosure requirements.
At a minimum, the commission should increase the relevant information provided and the frequency of reports to the public. Currently, only quarterly reports are required, and they show how much lobbyist employers spend and what bills they and their lobbyists seek to influence.
The commission should require disclosure by attorneys, consultants and public relations specialists who work on public policy. Those folks are not currently covered by the Political Reform Act. Not surprisingly, there has been a proliferation of them over the decades since 1974.
Lest there be any doubt about the implications, consider AT&T's lobbying report covering April 1 to June 30, 2006, the period when AT&T was engaged in a war over legislation allowing it to get involved in cable TV. The issue is relevant to anyone who might turn on a football game today or pay a cable bill this month.
In the lobbying report covering that period, the telephone giant reported spending $215,000 on lobbyists and no less than $5,618 on tickets for legislators and their aides to go to baseball and basketball games.
All that was significant. But by far the largest sum $17.59 million was spent on the "other payments to influence," for which there was no accounting. The commission needs to fix that. Who did that money go to? How was it spent?
Interest groups have a fundamental right to petition their government, and lobbying is part of that process. But the vast majority of citizens will never hire lobbyists, and they are the ones who ultimately are affected by lobbyists' work. At the very least, they have a right to know who pays to shape the laws and policy, and how that money is being spent.
They can decide if that is in their interest.