At the Esquire Building, a block away from the budding magnolias on the state Capitol grounds, policy analysts and executives of the state’s most powerful business coalition are busy screening bills as quickly as legislators can introduce them.
Under the dome, Democratic lawmakers like Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson are firming up their plans, mindful that their bills could be branded in a way that dooms them or is used against them in the next election.
Every spring the California Chamber of Commerce introduces its so-called “job killer” list, a handpicked collection of bills the group says will reduce jobs and deter companies from doing business in the state. Critics of the long-standing lobbying practice call the list little more than a marketing campaign carried out on behalf of big business.
One thing is certain: You don’t want your bill to be on it.
If a bill is on the job killer list, you have to take it seriously that there will be a strong effort to undermine its passage.
Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara
“They can be very effective,” said Jackson, a Santa Barbara Democrat. “If a bill is on the job killer list, you have to take it seriously that there will be a strong effort to undermine its passage.”
Only 47 of 650 bills labeled job killers have become law since the list debuted in 1997, according to the chamber’s tally. The history is archived in a section labeled “The Graveyard” on a website devoted to the issue, CAJobKillers.com. Many of the bills never reach a formal vote and instead die off at the author’s discretion, lacking support.
CalChamber President and Chief Executive Allan Zaremberg said his interest group isn’t responsible for failed legislation. The chamber simply calls out “bad bills.”
“It isn’t publicity, and it isn’t our lobbying that kills a job killer,” he said. “It’s the consequences of the bill.”
The chamber represents more than 13,000 companies that employ one-fourth of the private sector workforce in the state, according to the group. Members range from small-business owners to massive corporations. CalChamber spent $4.3 million on lobbying last year, the fourth highest amount by any group in the state.
Its job killer list is determined through a long process that begins with committees made up of members, who volunteer their expertise on subjects such as tax, or labor and employment, Zaremberg said.
He said the committees help guide the chamber’s policy, or stance on particular issues affecting California, and make recommendations to the board of directors, which includes high-ranking executives at The Walt Disney Co., Microsoft, Fox Entertainment Group and AT&T. The board votes on policy once a year.
The chamber reviews every bill and takes a stance on 200 to 400 in a year, said Zaremberg, who took over the group in 1998. He said the vast majority of the issues are covered by existing policy, which guides in-house lobbyists as they determine the chamber’s position on a bill. The staff flags bills they know will hurt jobs and also reaches out to people who are affected by the legislation, he said.
The chamber opposes most of the bills it reviews, but Zaremberg said only the “worst of the worst” are deemed job killers through the internal review process. A bill can earn the title if it imposes barriers to economic development, creates expensive regulations, inflates liability costs or increases fees for businesses, among other factors, the chamber said.
“We may be opposed to (a bill),” he said. “It may be an aggravation. It may be a burden. But it may not translate into what’s going to cost jobs. That’s where our credibility comes in. Does it cost jobs?”
47 number of bills out of 650 “job killers” that have become law since 1997
Once the list is finalized and before it goes public, the chamber gives authors a heads up and opportunity to address the issues.
Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, a San Diego Democrat who boasts a rare 2-0 winning record against the chamber, considers it a badge of honor when business interests attack her bills. A self-described supporter of workers’ rights, Gonzalez said it proves that she’s doing her job.
Gonzalez introduced a bill in 2014 to provide workers with three days of paid sick leave a year. AB 1522 made the job killers list because it increased the employer mandate, according to the chamber.
The bill was one of three labeled job killers that passed in 2014, but was removed from the list 12 days before it was signed into law.
The chamber said amendments changed the effects of the bills, but the group continued to oppose it. Gonzalez said the chamber took the bill off the list to keep its bill-killing record intact.
“The governor made it clear he was going to sign it and they removed it,” she said.
Edward Walker, a political sociology professor at UCLA, said it’s common for interest groups to develop scorecards for legislators and threaten to give lawmakers a low grade or damaging title if they don’t vote in their favor. Walker said it also isn’t unusual for associations to pad their record. One way to do that, he said, is by selecting bills likely to be a tough sell.
“When I see a list like this, I don’t know how cherry-picked it is,” Walker said. “This could very well be the low-hanging fruit: The issues that were potentially easier victories or might have been winnable anyway even if they weren’t involved.”
Gonzalez has her own ideas about the chamber’s methods.
AB 359, which passed last year, requires a company that buys an existing grocery business to retain the employees for up to 90 days. The chamber labeled the bill an “economic development barrier.” It was the only bill on the job killer list signed into law in 2015.
“My bill was explicitly to help people retain their jobs,” Gonzalez said. “It seems like a silly title, quite frankly. From what I understand about how a bill gets on the job killer list, it has to do with whoever donates the most money gets to choose what’s on the list.”
It’s not unusual that trade organizations are supported financially by their members. Chevron, among the business organization’s most generous donors, funneled $2.2 million to the chamber’s political action committees between 2009 and 2014. The oil and gas company lobbied against 11 bills that made the chamber’s job killer lists during that same period, according to regulatory filings.
The “job-killer” phrase traces back to the Council on California Competitiveness, according to Fred Main, a partner at Clear Advocacy and former chamber executive from 1981 to 2003. Main served as the chamber’s general counsel and senior vice president, overseeing policy development and the legislative operation.
Republican Gov. Pete Wilson formed the council of business and union leaders in 1991 to find ways to increase jobs and state revenue. Led by former Major League Baseball commissioner and Los Angeles investor Peter Ueberroth, the council’s first report warned that California had a reputation as a bad place to do business. At the time, Ueberroth called the state a “well-honed, job-killing machine.”
By 1997, political tides were changing. Wilson was on his way out, and Republicans had lost a brief majority in the Assembly. Majorities were thin in both houses, and the moderate caucus was forming, Main said.
With fewer Republicans to lean on, the chamber was looking for ways to appeal to moderate Democrats. Jobs were already a major policy concern for the business coalition, Main said.
“That morphed into the idea that if we have this big issue, there are individual bills that will make it worse,” Main said. “We’re sitting around saying what can we do and ‘job killers’ became a way of capturing that feeling.”
Main said the list distilled business issues for lawmakers, even if Democrats mocked it.
“While they were scoffing at the list, it became a very powerful tool,” Main said. “It hit a nerve.”
Today many liberal lawmakers credit the chamber for developing an effective tactic to draw attention to its opposition, but question whether the list has any real impact on jobs.
“When you call something a job killer, my goodness, in one second you’ve got someone’s attention,” said Sen. Jackson. “You’ve hit on a chord. People don’t want their jobs being killed. They don’t want public policy to be destructive of jobs. It’s a very simple, but frankly not a very accurate, characterization.”
A year ago Jackson introduced a bill to give workers up to 12 weeks of unpaid family sick leave. SB 406 would allow employees to retain their jobs and take unpaid time off to care for their newborn, or themselves or a close relative with a serious health issue.
Jackson’s bill made the job killer list because the chamber said it increased costs, risk of litigation and created less conformity with federal law. Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed SB 406, highlighting some of the same concerns as the chamber.
The list can also come into play in campaigns.
Last year the chamber strongly backed Steve Glazer, then a political consultant and mayor of Orinda, in an intraparty special election against Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, for the 7th Senate District in the East Bay. Outside groups spent millions to support each candidate, with unions heavily backing Bonilla and business interests behind Glazer.
In 2015, Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla voted to pass all three job killer bills that reached the Assembly floor. Meanwhile, Sen. Steve Glazer, strongly backed by CalChamber in his race against Bonilla, opposed three out of four that came to a vote in the Senate.
Democratic strategist Steve Maviglio, who led labor’s anti-Glazer campaign and served as its spokesman, said the chamber labeled Bonilla a job killer to sway Republicans to vote for Glazer.
“They went to Republicans with that pitch,” Maviglio said. “When they are trying to turn out Republicans to vote for a Democrat, it becomes effective.”
In recent years the chamber has supported more moderate Democrats, an increasingly influential group of lawmakers. Moderates often end up with the swing vote on highly contested issues and are known to be more business-friendly than their liberal counterparts.
For that reason, the special election for the 7th Senate District was particularly important to the chamber. Bonilla would have tipped the scales and given Democratic senators control over the fate of controversial business bills. Glazer, on the other hand, was expected to vote in concert with the chamber’s job killer list.
The predictions rang true: In 2015, Bonilla voted to pass all three job killer bills that reached the Assembly floor. Meanwhile, Glazer opposed three out of four that came to a vote in the Senate.