Loose Reporting Laws Let Lobbyists Obscure Where the Money Goes

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Millions of dollars are doled out annually to influence public policy in Sacramento, but it is virtually impossible to track how the money for lobbying is being spent despite an array of disclosure laws.

A study by the Sacramento Bee found that interest groups routinely obscure the purpose of spending by their lobbyists—even as they identify the objects of their affection—by lumping many of their expenditures into one big category: “other.”

More than one-fourth of the $2.9 billion spent on lobbying in the capital during the past 12 years was for “other” services and activities that could range from the innocuous, like paying the lobbyist office heating bill, to the significant, like paying former legislators not registered as lobbyists to counsel their former colleagues. It can also include expenses for issue advertising, as opposed to campaign advertising that has a higher level of transparency.

The state Fair Political Practices Commission, which was created by the Political Reform Act of 1974 and oversees disclosure rules, has loosened its reporting requirements by lobbyists over the years in response to complaints about onerous, time-consuming nitpicking.

The big interest groups generally categorize more of their expenditures as “other” than their smaller brethren. While the average group spent 27% on “other,” all but one of the Top 10 interest groups categorized more than 48% that way. The biggest spender, AT&T, labeled 58% “other,” while the Number 2 group, California Teachers Association, obscured a whopping 80.4% of its expenses that way.

The group most fond of obscuring its lobbying activities among the Top 30 spenders is a group that prides itself on exposing the wastefulness and uselessness of government. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association classified 99.3% of the $11.7 million its lobbyists spent as “other.” An association representative told the Bee the money went almost entirely to office overhead.

The California Secretary of State’s office maintains a database of lobbying activity and a website, Cal-Access, for tracking activities of individual lobbyists, lobbyist employers and lobbying firms. But the site provides no easy way to extract aggregate information that gives meaningful insight into where the money goes in Sacramento.

The following is lobbyist spending by the Top 10 interest groups between 2000 and 2012, according to the Bee.

  Amount (in millions) Pct. "other"
AT&T 52.0 58.0%
California Teachers Association 50.4 80.4%
Western States Petroleum Association 47.5 64.7%
California State Council of Service Employees 36.4 77.5%
California Chamber of Commerce 35.6 78.3%
California Hospital Association 24.1 18.9%
Edison International 22.7 62.8%
California Schools Employees Association 20.0 67.4%
California Manufacturers and Technology Association 19.8 75.3%
Chevron Texaco Corporation 19.4 48.7%


–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

California's Lobby Laws Keep Many Influence-Peddling Details Secret (by Laurel Rosenhall, Sacramento Bee)

Hidden Lobbying Expenses (Sacramento Bee)

Lobbying Activity (California Secretary of State)

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