Capitol Alert

Advocates say efforts to rein in vague lobbying payments should be strengthened

Jodi Remke conducts business during an FPPC meeting on Nov. 20, 2014 in Sacramento.
Jodi Remke conducts business during an FPPC meeting on Nov. 20, 2014 in Sacramento. rpench@sacbee.com

The Fair Political Practices Commission is pushing new rules that would require interest groups for the first time to disclose how they spend millions of dollars on ads and other efforts to influence state policy.

Lobbyist employers would have to itemize expenditures that exceed $2,500. And they would have to disclose the recipients of the payments. That would provide the the public a detailed look at how much political firms in Sacramento’s vast influence industry are making.

But on Thursday, when the ethics agency aired the plan, discussion was dominated by concerns that the guidelines may not be far-reaching enough. Representatives for the Secretary of State’s Office and the good-government organization Common Cause urged commissioners to rewrite the section on advertising so that lobbyist employers would have to disclose at which legislation specific spending was aimed.

“For many of these lobbyist employers, you’re going to have organizations that take positions on potentially hundreds of bills,” said Nicolas Heidorn, Common Cause’s policy and legislation counsel at the Capitol. “So, simply knowing that they had an advertising budget is less useful than what exactly that advertising budget was spent on if it was intended to influence particular legislation.”

Chris Reynolds, of the Secretary of State’s Office, suggested that the filers be made to include a code for their payment, as well as a specific bill number. Without such a link, he said “the public is not getting the kind of transparency desired ... so it’s of limited value.”

The FPPC heard from just a handful of affected parties on Thursday. An FPPC spokesman said that the commission also has yet to receive any responses to the proposed regulations in writing.

The limited early engagement on the rules, which are slated for a vote next month, may come as a surprise given their expected repercussions.

Currently, much of the money being spent and logged in quarterly reports falls into the unhelpful, catch-all category of “other payments to influence.” This past year those payments, TV advertising, rent and other costs, exceeded $71 million, including millions spent by players in the fight over Senate Bill 350.

Carmen Balber of Santa Monica-based Consumer Watchdog, said the organization appreciated the FPPC’s efforts to shine some light on “a big black hole for disclosure.” However, Balber said while some of the so-called payment codes are explicit and helpful, one new category called “public affairs,” is too broad and could result in a situation where much of the reported money is placed in that group.

“I would urge some more specificity about the payments,” she said, such as phone banking, robocalls, spokespeople or other similarly specific categories.

Christopher Cadelago: 916-326-5538, @ccadelago

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