How the Coronavirus Has Changed Lobbying in a Socially Distant Sacramento

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The California Legislature's special meeting on wildfires meets Aug. 7, 2018, in a hearing room crowded with lobbyists. (Robbie Short/CalMatters)

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the California Legislature was expected to tackle issues like homelessness, housing and PG&E’s bankruptcy. But the coronavirus has forced new priorities in Sacramento. That's caused everyone to readjust, including lobbyists.

During a typical legislative session, the halls of the state Capitol would be teeming with lobbyists by now. They'd be popping in and out of offices, meeting with lawmakers and staff, trying to promote, kill or alter hundreds of  bills.

Very little of that is going on right now, at least, not in person. But Samantha Corbin, a founding partner of the Corbin and Kaiser firm, said conversations are still taking place.

“Myself and most people I know are on the phone, eight, nine, 10-plus hours a day in 15 to 30 minute increments," she said. "It's actually pretty intense and overwhelming.”

The virus has upended the legislative calendar, with several key deadlines missed. Weeks that would have been spent shepherding bills through committees were instead spent working at home and trying to gain some clarity about what's to come. But Corbin said the shortened timeline has made one thing clear.


“If it's not something that relates to the coronavirus, or critical state infrastructure, or isn’t otherwise exacerbated by (the pandemic), it's really unlikely that legislation is going to move this year," she said.

That dynamic is creating uncertainty for priorities like changing the controversial Assembly Bill 5, last year’s bill limiting who can be considered an independent contractor. Laura Bennett, a principal consultant at the California Advisors lobbying firm, whose clients include Uber and TaskRabbit, said some policy committee chairs are asking authors to justify their bills with what are called "criticality statements."

"And they are looking at those statements and how they either relate to COVID-19 or some other urgent, immediate need. And I would categorize AB 5 underneath that category," she said.

Coronavirus Coverage

In the past, it was common to see long lines of people in the hallways waiting to give public comments in committee hearings. That likely won’t be happening now with social distancing rules. Jena Price, a partner at TrattenPrice Consulting, said while it’s important to stay safe, the changes could disadvantage a lot of her clients, many of which are organizations representing disenfranchised communities.

"I think it's really important to note that those are stories that need to be told sometimes to the legislative body in those more human moments," Price said.

Given state finances, education lobbyists are also concerned about the coming budget year. Kevin Gordon is president of Capitol Advisors Group, which represents school districts. His clients are focused on stemming the bleeding from what they expect to be massive budget cuts.

“No increases, no big, new money, no new programs obviously," Gordon said. "But not cuts that are so deep that it makes it impossible for school districts to operate.”

It won’t be fully clear how big an effect COVID-19 will have on the state’s budget until after the July 15 income tax deadline, but everyone is bracing for the worst.