Fiona Ma for State Assembly

Lobbyists spend millions -- and rarely lose in Legislature

Special interests spent a record $553 million lobbying California state government in the past two years.

For them, it was money well spent.

Makers of chemical fire- retardants poured in more than $9 million to kill a ban on fire-proofing chemicals in furniture that consumer groups say cause cancer.

The Morongo Band of Mission Indians used $4.39 million to muscle through a gambling deal to let the tribe add thousands of lucrative new slot machines to its casino.

The oil industry spent more than $10.5 million to influence the Legislature and state agencies. A 2007 industry association report touted that even in a Democratic-controlled Legislature, "of the 52 bills identified as priorities (in 2007), only three that we opposed were approved by the Legislature."

Of those three, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed two.

A Bee analysis of this past two-year session found the 10 highest-spending employers of private lobbyists shelled out a total of more than $70 million working the halls of state government. They rarely lost.

"You're fighting a mountain of money," said former Assemblywoman Sally Lieber, D-Mountain View. "You have an idea, and they have enormous amounts of money. Who's going to win?"

Top lobbyists and their employers use the millions to amass armies of advocates to build alliances and cultivate relationships to influence their agenda. They buy meals and gifts and treat policymakers to Disneyland or Kings games. They amp up external pressure by blanketing their targets' constituents with mailers and radio ads.

Lobby fuels growth industry

In the past two decades, the amount spent on lobbying in California has increased with each two-year legislative session, rising from $193 million in 1989-90 to more than $550 million last session, state records show.

The number of groups hiring professional advocates has also grown, from 682 in 1975 to 2,365 at the start of the 2007-08 session.

With term limits capping how long legislators can serve in the statehouse, the lobby corps is largely the keeper of the Capitol's institutional knowledge.

Indeed, advocacy groups insist their success comes with earning lawmakers' trust and disseminating accurate information.

"You're either trustworthy or you're not," said Don Burns, the dean of the lobbying corps, who has represented an array of interests – from pool manufacturers to nuclear waste dumps – in a half-century of advocacy.

The California Chamber of Commerce's Allan Zaremberg put it this way: "The first thing is we have to ensure that we provide the appropriate level of knowledge and education, because I think that translates eventually into influence."

Strength found in numbers

The corps of lobbyists truly is California's third house – and a bigger one at that. Registered lobbyists outnumber lawmakers in Sacramento 8-to-1.

That ratio allows the richest interests the luxury of swarming the Legislature for key policy battles.

The California Teachers Association, the No. 4 lobbying spender, and the California Chamber of Commerce, ranked No. 8, each deployed nine full-time lobbyists last session.

AT&T had three staff lobbyists – and contracts with nine outside firms.

Frustrated lawmakers taking on a moneyed interest often describe the lobbying ranks aligned against them in military terms.

"I was outgunned," said Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro, who estimated that 30 lobbyists were working against her 2008 bill to ban perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs, from food packaging.

Her bill passed the Legislature, but Schwarzenegger vetoed it.

"I would see them in the hallways meeting, outside the chambers, at committee hearings," said Assemblywoman Fiona Ma, D-San Francisco, recalling her 2007 fight with the chemical industry. "They were all over the place."

Ma's bill – banning phthalates in plastic toys – became law. But it was the only successful chemical ban of a dozen attempted over two years.