Dan Walters: Big money in California influences huge money

dwalters@sacbee.comJuly 21, 2013 

The Bee has published an online database about lobbying expenditures during the 2011-12 legislative session totaling $564 million, up about 5 percent from the previous two-year period.

That sounds like a lot of money, which it is for anyone not a billionaire. And you could add another $200 million or so in campaign contributions.

Even so, money spent to influence politics pales in comparison to the stakes.

The state alone spends more than $300 billion a year from all sources – including taxes, federal funds, borrowed money and pension funds, the Department of Insurance oversees an industry that takes in and pays out more than $100 billion a year, and the Public Utilities Commission regulates over $50 billion a year in utility charges.

Just those specific categories mean that the ratio of what state government spends and controls to what interest groups spend on political action each year approaches 1,000-to-1. But of course lobbyists deal with more than spending and rate-setting.

Local governments and their unions are among the most active employers of lobbyists in the Capitol because the former, including school districts, are also big spenders – at $300 billion a year, about the same as state government.

The governor and the Legislature exert direct and indirect control over how local money flows, with recent battles over redevelopment, realignment and state mandates, all high-dollar issues, as examples.

Finally, there are myriad other matters with great financial impacts that are very difficult to quantify – such as business and professional regulation, rules governing lawsuits, and land development issues.

When lobbyists for medical specialties battle over "scope of practice" laws that define each practitioner's procedures, for example, they are fighting over big money. Health care is California's largest single industry, well over $200 billion a year, and scope of practice defines who gets what share of that pot.

Lobbyists for personal injury attorneys wage epic battles each year with business and insurance lobbyists over rules governing who can sue whom for what.

That includes one that's been raging for nearly 40 years over the state's $250,000 cap on pain and suffering damages in medical malpractice cases that may flare up late in this year's legislative session.

While land use is primarily a local government function, it's been slowly moving to Sacramento as the state – in the name of climate change – lays down new rules on housing density and other issues. And there is, of course, that looming battle over whether California's shale oil reserves will be tapped.

So yes, big money is spent to influence decision-making in state government. But much, much bigger money is at stake in the outcome of those efforts.

Call The Bee's Dan Walters, (916) 321-1195. Back columns, www.sacbee.com/walters. Follow him on Twitter @WaltersBee.

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