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Bill Looks to Put State Lobbying Laws on Par With Local Rules

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 (John Myers/KQED)

Our California Political Muscle series has recently explored both the hidden elements of how businesses lobby to win state government contracts and who employs lobbyists in Sacramento.

A bill moving through the California Legislature that would force disclosure around lobbying for state contracts would put California in a group of just 18 states that require disclosure of procurement lobbying -- which sounds good until you consider that a number of local communities have had similar rules on the books for years.

Assembly Bill 1200 , one of hundreds of bills awaiting final action when lawmakers return next week, would expand existing lobbying laws to include state government contracts. The law would apply to anyone who pays a lobbyist more than $2,000 a month or has someone on staff whose primary job is to lobby government officials.

Currently, state ethics laws only require disclosure of lobbyists paid to help influence legislation or state regulations.

If AB 1200 passes the Senate and is signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, the state would only just now be catching up to practices long established at the local level.


Four of California’s six largest counties -- Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange, and Santa Clara --  have lobbying ordinances that specifically include contracts when it comes to disclosing the use of paid lobbyists.

Los Angeles County, which has thousands of contracts on the books on everything from groundskeeping to armed security guards, has even built its disclosure law into the process of applying for a contract to provide county services. Each applicant must certify that they are aware of the registration and disclosure requirements that the county places on lobbyists. Breaking the lobbying law in LA County has consequences: The firm or person seeking the contract is disqualified from contention.

The state’s largest cities also already regulate contract lobbying the same way that AB 1200’s author, Assemblyman Rich Gordon (D -Menlo Park), hopes to enact at the state level. For many of those cities, this kind of disclosure requirement is nothing new.

Stacey Fulhorst, executive director of the San Diego Ethics Commission, led an overhaul of the city’s lobbying ordinance in 2007 but says lobbying for contracts has been on the city books at least since the 1990’s. She says it's “surprising” the state hasn’t adopted a similar provision.

Fulhorst also learned in the three years it took to overhaul San Diego’s laws the difficulty in tailoring lobbying laws so that routine communication isn’t discouraged.

“We didn’t want to have to include a citizen contacting a representative about a street light,” she says.

For that reason, most city and county lobbying rules allow for communications -- within the normal bid submission process -- between vendors and the local governments they are hoping to supply with services.

Even smaller counties with fewer contracts have seen the need to have some kind of disclosure requirement to make sure big deals aren’t won with behind-the-scenes activity. In 1983, Santa Cruz County was considering the idea of entering into an exclusive cable television agreement with a single provider. County supervisors passed an ordinance that would require lobbyists to register during the bidding process.

But according to Santa Cruz County spokesman Rayne Marr, the ordinance "is a relic of the past" and is no longer used. 

Some counties instead rely on a series of ethics laws around the procurement process. These can govern the acceptance of gifts from applicants, or they set guidelines for appropriate contact with current service providers. 

But without the registration of lobbyists, the counties and cities, like the state of California, are left unable to fully account for the contacts made and conversations that lead up to the awarding of thousands of taxpayer-funded contracts.

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