For California's Powerful, Following the Law Often Means Writing It Yourself

Sponsors often write talking points, take the lead in testifying at hearings and work to secure the bill’s passage. (Mark Fiore/KQED)

Ask Assemblyman Ken Cooley who wrote the bill he's carrying to make business-friendly changes to California's landmark climate change law, and he’ll be the first to tell you: It wasn't him.

"I am certainly not an energy expert," Cooley said when asked about the complex language contained in his Assembly Bill 720.

Cooley is one of dozens of legislators who introduce "sponsored bills," legislation instigated by outside groups. The term sounds benign, and it sometimes certainly is.

It's also opaque. And optional. In fact, KQED News' detailed review of thousands of pieces of legislation over the past three years shows relatively few sponsored bills -- and staffers and lobbyists privately say that's because legislators often refuse to publicly identify the groups involved.

"People ought to say who the sponsors are," said Cooley (D-Rancho Cordova).


'A Partner Along The Way'

A "sponsor" can be any group that pushes a legislator to introduce a bill. The designation dates back to at least the 1920s, but neither the Assembly nor Senate's official FAQs include the term. Capitol veterans point out that's probably because it was never meant for the public; rather, they say, it's usually a way for political heavyweights to put a "Do Not Mess With This Bill" label on legislation that they care about.

Still, one definition seems to be universal: A bill's sponsors are more than just supporters.

"In some cases, you're drafting the legislation, you're drafting talking points, you're lobbying the bill," said Shaudi Falamaki Fulp, a former Capitol lobbyist. "You are a partner along the way."

Fulp, now a political and public relations strategist, said that the most powerful Capitol players will use teams of people behind the scenes to win a legislative battle.

"That means not only hiring the best lobbyists," she said, "but also the best lawyers, pollsters and PR firms who carefully craft legislation to maximize success."

Some define the role of bill sponsorship in a narrower way.

"Sponsoring a bill means we work closely with the author," said Steve Smith of the California Labor Federation, "and play a big role in mounting a public campaign to urge for its passage."

And some politically powerful groups are quite forceful. "Sponsorship means we take ownership," said David Wolfe, legislative director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association.

Still, there's no bright line as to just what level of work by an interest group qualifies it as a bill's sponsor.

Legislative staff contacted by KQED News with a simple question -- what defines sponsorship? -- offered a range of answers:

  • An aide to Assemblyman Kevin McCarty (D-Sacramento) said sponsors bring the "idea" and they work alongside the staff to craft bill language.
  • An aide to Assemblyman Ed Chau (D-Monterey Park) said sponsors "share similar priorities" with the lawmaker.
  • An aide to Sen. Ben Hueso (D-San Diego) called bill sponsorship a "nuanced process."

Very little of that activity is transparent, said former Assembly Republican leader Sam Blakeslee, for one simple reason: perception.

"Everyone can define what is or isn't a sponsored bill using their own lexicon," he said. "And if they think it’s a bad thing, they can state categorically they never carry a sponsored bill."

Helpers, Not Sponsors

In the world of legislative negotiations, the December meeting in the state Capitol office of Sen. Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo) wasn't that unusual. It also wasn't for public consumption.

The private meeting brought together lobbyists from the airline industry and local government to mull a possible 2015 bill that would change the method of assessing property taxes on commercial aircraft.


"I thought it would be good to have the discussion," Hill said in a recent interview.

Two of the meeting's attendees said that the airlines had drafted bill language, often a key step toward the creation of a sponsored bill.

But Hill sees what happened, and what it means, quite differently.

"I don't believe in sponsored bills," said Hill in a recent interview about the airline tax proposal.

The senator argues for a narrow definition: only bills that lobbyists and interest groups control throughout the entire process, including even what amendments are accepted or rejected. On his bills, Hill said he's the one calling the shots.

"If a bill or an issue comes before me, I'm the author," he said.

As such, the bill resulting from the December discussions about airline taxes, Senate Bill 661, is not labeled as a sponsored bill.

No Disclosure Required

Every legislative staffer or lobbyist interviewed for this story admitted that there's little to stop anyone from concealing the role, or even the existence, of sponsors.

"It's really the way business is done in Sacramento," said former Assembly GOP leader Blakeslee.

The only public designation for sponsored bills is found deep in the legislative analyses written by policy committee staffers, not in the bill itself. And where do staff get their information? From legislators, who voluntarily identify sponsors on a background information form. There are no rules in either house of the Legislature for disclosing either the existence of sponsors or what work they did -- including writing every word of the proposed law in question.

Lobbying disclosure laws offer little information, requiring only a list of the bills worked on every quarter -- not what kind of work was actually conducted.

Sunlight Shrinks the Sponsored Bills List?

Some sponsors consciously choose to remain in the shadows, especially those who could be politically toxic to either the lawmaker or the proposed law.

"In some cases, legislators might ask certain interest groups to stay at a distance," said former lobbyist Fulp.

Several legislative staffers and lobbyists pointed to a series of newspaper stories in 2010 as a turning point in the Capitol's relationship with disclosure of the political muscle behind many bills.

That summer, the San Jose Mercury News waded through the sponsored bill process, and reported that 39 percent of the 2007-2008 legislative session's bills were sponsored.

One Democratic legislator's chief of staff, who did not want to speak publicly, said the lesson learned by the Capitol community from the 2010 news coverage was: stop identifying so many bills as having sponsors.

The most recent data from the Legislature seem to confirm that point.

KQED News did an extensive review, using a legislative database of bill analyses, to find when sponsors were publicly identified. Where the previous news investigation found 39 percent were sponsored in 2007-08, KQED News found only 15 percent (716 of 4,800) of all bills in 2013-14 were listed as sponsored.

The results were even smaller for the legislative session now underway. Of the 908 pending bills that had published committee analyses as of April 13, only 49 of them -- slightly more than 5 percent -- are identified as sponsored.

'The Subject Matter Is Pretty Darn Arcane'

Assemblyman Cooley first introduced his plan to modify the state's 2006 climate change law last summer, likely too late in the legislative season to be fully considered.

This time, he introduced it in February. If enacted, AB720 would loosen some of the existing restrictions that state officials have placed on the number of carbon emissions credits or "allowances" that a company can hold at any one time.

Cooley said he worked with manufacturing and oil industry representatives to draft AB720, and the bill's sponsor is listed as the California Manufacturers and Technology Alliance. The group's president said they asked "technical and legal experts" to draft bill language. A spokesperson for an oil industry trade group confirmed that "ideas" were shared with Cooley on how to change California's greenhouse gas law, but declined to characterize Big Oil's precise level of involvement.

"The subject matter is pretty darn arcane," said the moderate Democratic assemblyman. Still, it's a subject -- making the state's climate change policy more business-friendly -- that Cooley said he believes in strongly.

"My constituents are worried," he wrote in a letter last summer to the chairwoman of the state's Air Resources Board about the potential economic impacts of the cap-and-trade program.

Even those who agree the bill-writing process has become too controlled by outside groups also seem to believe that sponsored bills have a place, especially in the California Legislature, where term limits have shrunk the level of policy experience and expertise.

"There's nothing intrinsically wrong with a sponsored bill," said former state Sen. Joe Simitian, now a Santa Clara County supervisor. "But then it's on you, as a legislator, to say, 'Is this something that serves a narrow special interest? Or is this something that serves the broad public interest?' "


KQED News producer Guy Marzorati, senior interactive producer Lisa Pickoff-White and editor Kat Snow contributed to this report.