Capitol Alert

California ethics panel targets vague lobbying payments

Jodi Remke, center, flanked by commissioners Patricia Wynne, left, and Eric Casher conduct business on Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014 in Sacramento, Calif.
Jodi Remke, center, flanked by commissioners Patricia Wynne, left, and Eric Casher conduct business on Thursday, Nov. 20, 2014 in Sacramento, Calif.

California’s ethics watchdog is pushing a major regulatory change that for the first time would require interest groups to disclose how they spend millions of dollars on ad campaigns and other efforts to influence state policy.

Under current California law, anyone who spends at least $5,000 to sway legislation or administrative rule-making must must file quarterly reports. But much of the reported spending falls into a nebulous category called “other payments to influence,” a designation that can include the cost of mounting advertising campaigns, paying office overhead and retaining political consultants.

In the third quarter of 2015, for instance, the oil industry poured millions into a concerted assault on legislation that would have required California to halve its petroleum use. Of the $6.7 million the Western States Petroleum Association reported spending, $6.1 million, or around 91 percent, was listed under “other payments to influence.” According to an analysis by the state’s Fair Political Practices Commission, the top 10 interest group spenders filed 69 percent of their payments under the category in 2014.

“Lump sum reporting of this catchall category does not provide the public the ability to know how and where that money is spent,” notes an FPPC document proposing a rule change.

Seeking more transparency, the FPPC is pushing an amendment that would have lobbyist employers break down expenditures that exceed $2,500 into an array of categories that include paying employees other than lobbyists, advertising and public affairs work. They also would have to disclose the recipients of the payments, giving the the public a detailed look at how much political companies in Sacramento’s vast influence industry are making.

“The public is entitled to know who is trying to influence and how they are doing it,” FPPC spokesman Jay Wierenga said in an email. “Otherwise, we just identify the big players but not who or what they’re playing/paying for.”

Government transparency advocates praised the decision.

“This kind of opaque category is now a bulk of lobbying expenditures, so we think people will really benefit from added transparency,” said California Common Cause lobbyist Nicolas Heidorn, whose organization paid around $30,000 this year to lobby the Legislature and the FPPC. “We have reporting from lobbyist employers if they buy dinner for a senator, but if they spend $100,000 on an ad campaign to influence legislation, we don’t get that.”

The FPPC plans to solicit input at a Dec. 3 meeting before voting on the proposal in January. If the rule is adopted then, it would take effect in July of 2016 and compel greater disclosure for the crucial third quarter, which encompasses the final stretch of the legislative session – a time when lobbying spending tends to spike as bills face decisive votes.

Jeremy B. White: 916-326-5543, @CapitolAlert