Created by a landmark initiative in 1974, the California Political Reform Act regulates lobbying and gives the public some glimpse into how the sausage known as legislation gets made.
But 1974 was a long time ago. The influence industry has changed, and in a detailed examination last Sunday, The Bee's Laurel Rosenhall revealed how much lobbying remains hidden.
As a result of public reports required by the 1974 initiative, corporations, unions and other interest groups have disclosed that they spent $2.9 billion on lobbying in the past 12 years. They've also detailed how much of that was spent.
But $794 million of that $2.9 billion was non-itemized. Perhaps it was spent on rent. More likely, it was used to pay for television or radio ads to influence public opinion, to gin up citizen interest in Astroturf campaigns related to legislation, and on public affairs consultants, strategists and attorneys. Although the specifics aren't clear, you can assume the money was spent to shape legislation and policy.
The Fair Political Practices Commission under Chairwoman Ann Ravel has embarked on a worthwhile project to overhaul the lobbying disclosure requirements.
At a minimum, the commission should increase the relevant information and frequency of what now are quarterly reports that show how much lobbyist employers spend and what bills they and their lobbyists seek to influence.
The commission should seek to require some disclosure by attorneys, consultants and public relations specialists who work on public policy.
They are not covered by the Political Reform Act, and, not surprisingly, there has been a proliferation of them over the decades since 1974.
Lest there be any doubt about the implications of the issue, consider AT&T's lobbying report covering the period April 1 to June 30, 2006, the period when AT&T was engaged in a war over legislation allowing it to get involved in cable television. The issue is relevant to anyone who might turn on a football game today, or pay a cable bill this month.
In the lobbying report covering that period, the telephone giant reported spending $215,000 on lobbyists and no less than $5,618 on tickets for legislators and their aides to go to various baseball and basketball games.
All that was significant. But by far the largest sum $17.59 million was spent on the "other payments to influence," for which there was no accounting. The commission needs to fix that.
Interest groups have a fundamental right to petition their government, and lobbying is part of that process. But the vast majority of citizens will never hire lobbyists, and they are the ones who ultimately are affected by lobbyists' work. At the very least, they have a right to know who pays to shape the laws and policy, and how that money is being spent.