Local Governments Spend Big to Influence Sacramento

Members of the California Assembly consider a new state budget at the Capitol in Sacramento on June 15, 2015. (Max Whittaker/KQED)

This is one of two stories that look at California's largest lobbying player -- local governments -- and the lack of transparency in how private companies lobby for state government contracts. Read Part 2 here

Annual scorecards and power rankings rarely take notice of the lobbyists for local governments in California's statehouse, focusing instead on the brawn of business or labor's legion of foot soldiers.

But when push comes to shove, the biggest player in the effort to influence state government is, in fact, local government -- a flexing of political muscle fueled by tens of millions of taxpayer dollars.

"Everybody's got somebody working the hallways," said Kevin Jeffries, a former assemblymember and now a Riverside County supervisor. "It's always been frustrating for me to see how much taxpayer funds are being diverted from services, and sending that money to the state Capitol so that we can hire lobbyists."

The money spent on lobbying by government agencies -- cities, counties, school districts, water agencies, even rent control boards across the Golden State -- consistently ranks at or near the top of the heap. Recent state filings show the government sector spent $22.3 million on lobbying and influence efforts in the first six months of 2015, on top of the $87.8 million spent in the previous two year legislative session.

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Local governments dominate the lobbying sweepstakes. Since January 2013, they have collectively shelled out more than double what oil and gas companies spent on Sacramento lobbying, and more than 10 times what's being spent by the state's agriculture industry.

In numerous interviews with community officials and statehouse lobbyists, one thing seems clear: Local governments feel they can't afford to miss the action, or the chance to defend their interests, when it comes to California's legislative and executive branches of government.

'Information Is Influence'

"The game has changed so dramatically," said Robert Doyle, general manager of the East Bay Regional Parks District.

Doyle, a frequent visitor to the state Capitol to testify before legislative committees, is also a staunch defender of the district's spending on professional lobbyists -- roughly $300,000 per legislative session, almost $1 million since 2009. He argues that without that lobbying, the district's parks would have suffered in an era of term-limited legislators and recession-depleted state coffers.

"Getting any type of state support has become far more competitive," Doyle said.

That sentiment reverberates down in the small city of Imperial, too, just some 12 miles from the Mexico border. Home to about 17,446, according to state population estimates, Imperial lands in the top ten of a KQED News analysis of government lobbying, per capita, since 2013 -- more than $10 spent for every city resident.

"If the city wants to have an equal voice, then we need to be able to come up with that money," said City Manager Marlene Best about Imperial's advocacy. "Information is influence. You know, face-to-face meetings provide some influence."

Layers of Locally Funded Lobbying

In many cases, a California citizen can be represented by layers of lobbyists hired by subsets of local and regional government, a layering of advocacy that makes both the actual spending and its relative value hard to track.

The city of Los Angeles, for example, pays three lobbying firms for representation in Sacramento at a total cost this year, to date, of more than $506,000. But lobbyists have also been hired by City Attorney Mike Feuer (a former assemblymember), who has paid more than $95,000 for his own lobbying services -- lobbyists and payments to advocacy groups -- through June 30.

So why does Feuer need his own hired guns?

"Because of the vast impact of legislation in Sacramento on the work of our office, it is important that we have a presence in the Capitol," said Rob Wilcox, a spokesman for the city attorney's office.

In San Francisco, Mayor Ed Lee's office has paid $115,000 this year for its own lobbyists, and the city/county transportation authority has paid its lobbyists $26,200.

Smaller local agencies have also bulked up on influence in Sacramento. The police department of Lemoore (Kings County) has its own lobbyist. So does the Santa Monica Rent Control Board. In all, some 325 different agencies of local government in California have reported paying for advocacy in Sacramento during the first six months of this year.

The local agencies that hire lobbying firms often make additional payments (known as "payments to influence") to statewide associations, which, in turn, then also lobby the Legislature and Gov. Jerry Brown.

The single biggest spending government lobbying group, the California State Association of Counties ($529,349 in 2015) is funded by dues collected from all 58 counties. Other associations represent law enforcement, tax assessors and beyond.

Many of the taxpayer dollars are being spent, says Riverside County's Jeffries, for one simple reason: to block adverse action by state lawmakers, action that may add new burdens or expenses for local officials.

"You have to have your foot inside the door in the Legislature if you want to try to protect yourself from getting steamrolled," he said.

Lobbying Dollars: An 'Investment'

That fear, as well as the hope of winning lucrative contracts or grants, drives many local officials to enlist the services of statehouse lobbyists.

"Glendale does not currently have an active presence at the state level," wrote Glendale city staffers in their 2013 recommendation to hire a private lobbying firm. "As such, it does not have representation at the state Capitol that can help the city gain support from key public officials and policy makers on decisions that directly impact the city."

Lobbying firms, too, know what local governments want.

"We have unmatched access to the governor's administration, California Legislature, Coastal Commission, and other state agencies," wrote employees of one prominent firm, Platinum Advisors, in its unsuccessful bid for the lobbying contract of Sacramento County in 2014.

There are no rules to prohibit using taxpayer dollars to hire professional lobbyists. And the rates paid by local agencies vary; some lobbying firms charge a flat fee regardless of the local community's size, while others appear to somewhat scale their rates. Some local governments -- mostly smaller cities -- have dropped their lobbying efforts in recent years, and others have sporadically hired advocates as needs arose.

But most seem to pay for the representation year in and year out. And a number of local officials argue that it's a solid investment with proven returns.

Robert Doyle, East Bay Regional Park District's general manager, says the agency has easily made back $10 for every dollar it's spent on lobbying. He points, in particular, to a $13 million wildlife conservation grant and even a fire truck from the state for the park district's firefighting operation.

"That's a pretty good investment," said Doyle.

How much are local governments spending on lobbying services?

Search for your local government and agencies below to see how much money they’re spending on lobbying and "payments to influence" the state government.

[lobbyingGovtdata]

The total amount spent reflects reports from the 10 quarters between January of 2013 and June of 2015. The population numbers are from the 2013 Census Population Estimates.

KQED News producers Guy Marzorati and Lisa Pickoff-White led the data analysis for this report.

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