“Money ‘is the mother’s milk of politics,” the late California Assembly Speaker Jess Unruh famously pronounced.
He didn’t just presage the obscene amounts of cash now pouring into the electoral process, mostly from interest groups and other major contributors, who are looking to support powerful and friendly candidates.
Money spent by interests to promote or block legislation is “on pace” to reach record highs this legislative session, according to a recent analysis of lobbyist spending in Sacramento by California Watch—a team of investigative journalists launched by the nonpartisan Center for Investigative Reporting.
Why the increasingly high price for influencing the state’s legislative process?
The simplistic answer is because money talks louder than people in the governmental arena (that’s a major complaint of today’s Occupy Wall Street). And it costs more to be heard these days.
California Watch reported that state ”interest groups have filed nearly 7,000 reports in the first half of 2011 disclosing what bills and issues they have lobbied in state government.”
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That’s a lot of competition!
But don’t think that legislative success always goes to the highest bidder. Here’s just one example from the 2009-2010 legislative session.
AB 2578 would give California’s insurance commissioner authority to review and approve proposed increases in health insurance rates.
Supporters of the bill, including, teachers’ public employee and private sector unions, contributed almost $18 million to California state senators, according to MapLight, which tracks political money.
Opponents, including health insurance groups and pro-business organizations, gave roughly $15 million. And both sides employed platoons of high-priced lobbyists.
The bill died in the Senate, on a 16-19 vote.
The rise in lobby expenses is at least partially due to the simple fact that the policy stakes are so high—and the state’s ability to fund priorities important to any group has shrunk dramatically in this still sour economy.
When the size of the pie shrinks, the result is interests fighting each other even more feverishly for access to pols and influence on legislation.
Ironically, on a lot of issues, the big money on both sides can cancel each other out.
Already California’s revenue estimates are down by about $3.7 billion.
Under the severe budget passed last summer, if a “papered-over” deficit of $4 billion dollars isn’t erased by mid-December, California’s budget “trigger” will be pulled, forcing cuts in state services, including education, social programs and health care.
So it’s not surprising that, as California Watch found, “[t]aken as a whole, the state budget and its many different elements was by far the most-lobbied issue this year.”
Among the most active spenders were the California Teachers Association, the California State Council of Service Employees, and the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan.
They’ve got a lot to lose.
California’s system of higher education has even more to lose. In fact, one of the reasons the UCs and State Universities haven’t fared well in Sacramento during the continuing budget crisis is that, to plead their case, they rely on a small cadre of in-house lobbyists who are not major players in the campaign-contributions game.
That brings to mind another Unruhism: “Academic politics are so vicious, because the stakes are so small.” Maybe. But—without a doubt—lobbying politics are so expensive, because the stakes are so high.