Lob­by­ing with tax dol­lars

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION -

Lo­cal gov­ern­ments in Cal­i­for­nia have spent $24.3 mil­lion so far this year to lobby state law­mak­ers. That’s more than any other sec­tor spent try­ing to di­rectly in­flu­ence Sacra­mento.

By com­par­i­son, oil and gas com­pa­nies shelled out less than $17 mil­lion — even though the Leg­is­la­ture was work­ing on a cap-and-trade bill of enor­mous im­por­tance to the in­dus­try. An­other in­ter­est group fa­mously busy in Sacra­mento, la­bor unions, spent only $6.8 mil­lion, The Times’ John My­ers re­ported.

Those fig­ures are a bit mis­lead­ing, how­ever, be­cause en­ergy com­pa­nies, la­bor unions and other pri­vate-sec­tor play­ers have an­other, po­ten­tially more ef­fec­tive way to get their mes­sage across: cam­paign do­na­tions. Ap­pro­pri­ately, state law bars lo­cal gov­ern­ments from spend­ing pub­lic money on do­na­tions to po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns. That leaves lob­by­ing as lo­cal gov­ern­ments’ main weapon to push back against leg­is­la­tion that af­fects them­selves and their con­stituents.

And there’s no short­age of things to push back on. State law­mak­ers hold tremen­dous bud­getary and pol­icy-mak­ing power over school dis­tricts, cities, coun­ties and other lo­cal agen­cies, thanks in large part to Propo­si­tion 13’s re­stric­tions on prop­erty taxes. Coun­ties are par­tic­u­larly de­pen­dent on the bud­get de­ci­sions made by the state Leg­is­la­ture, as they are re­spon­si­ble for im­ple­ment­ing many state-funded pro­grams. Thou­sands of bills are filed ev­ery year, many of them with di­rect or in­di­rect im­pacts on lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties. Who has time to run a city and keep an eye on Sacra­mento?

Con­sider just a few bills pend­ing in the Leg­is­la­ture that would have pro­found im­pact on lo­cal gov­ern­ment.

SCA 12 by state Sen. Tony Men­doza (DArte­sia) seeks to in­crease the size of the Los An­ge­les County Board of Su­per­vi­sors from five to seven mem­bers.

AB 1250, spon­sored by the Ser­vice Em­ploy­ees In­ter­na­tional Union and au­thored by Assem­bly­man Regi­nald Jones-Sawyer (DLos An­ge­les), would set rules for when coun­ties could hire pri­vate ser­vice providers, lim­it­ing the su­per­vi­sors’ abil­ity to make their own de­ci­sions about when to use con­trac­tors in­stead of county em­ploy­ees. (City gov­ern­ments were in­cluded in an ear­lier ver­sion of the bill but re­moved af­ter lob­by­ing by cities.)

SB 649 pits cities and coun­ties against AT&T, Ver­i­zon and other telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pa­nies that have do­nated mil­lions of dol­lars to leg­is­la­tors’ cam­paigns in re­cent years. The com­pa­nies are rolling out new equip­ment for the next gen­er­a­tion of mo­bile phone ser­vice and want a state law giv­ing them the right to use the util­ity and street light poles owned by lo­cal gov­ern­ment for a set fee. The bill has been ad­vanc­ing over the vo­cif­er­ous ob­jec­tions of cities and coun­ties.

Lo­cal gov­ern­ments don’t al­ways play de­fense. Some­times they push the state for some­thing that would ben­e­fit their com­mu­nity; for ex­am­ple, when Los An­ge­les was bid­ding to host the Sum­mer Olympic Games, it lob­bied suc­cess­fully for help pay­ing any cost over­runs it might in­cur. Cities were also ac­tive in lob­by­ing for SB 1, the pack­age of gas tax and ve­hi­cle fees passed ear­lier this year that will raise $5.2 bil­lion an­nu­ally for roads and other trans­porta­tion projects.

Cities, coun­ties and other lo­cal gov­ern­ments and their elected lead­ers aren’t nec­es­sar­ily more im­mune to spe­cial in­ter­ests than their state coun­ter­parts. But they are, by de­sign, closer to the needs and con­cerns of con­stituents — and likely to hear about it if they don’t serve the pub­lic’s in­ter­est first.

In a per­fect world, lo­cal elected of­fi­cials wouldn’t need to shell out pub­lic money to keep track of all the pro­pos­als com­ing out of Sacra­mento, or to ad­vise state law­mak­ers on how best to rep­re­sent the con­stituents they share. But with a state as vast as Cal­i­for­nia and a po­lit­i­cal sys­tem that re­lies so heav­ily on fund­ing from spe­cial in­ter­ests, this is a nec­es­sary check.

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