2011-12-26 "Business lobbyists succeed in Sacramento this year" by Laurel Rosenhall and Chase Davis from "San Francisco Chronicle"
Business interests were the top bill-killers inside California's Capitol during Gov. Jerry Brown's first year back in office, as concerns about the state's weak economy cut into labor's newfound clout.
Legislative data show that business interests wielded strong influence despite a Capitol dominated by Democrats in the Legislature and governor's office. Business lobbyists defeated bills that would have cut tax breaks, required employers to give workers unpaid bereavement leave and prolonged the foreclosure process.
In the current economy, "all legislators are more sensitive to the argument that something would be a job killer or harmful for investment or expansion," said Dorothy Rothrock, a lobbyist for the California Manufacturers and Technology Association, which represents major businesses around the state. "That's made it easier for us to stop or amend bills to make them less hostile or burdensome."
Brown's current term has been good for labor unions, too. They successfully pushed bills that limit the state's ability to use private contractors, allow local governments to require union construction crews on public works projects and reduce the use of self-checkout lanes in grocery stores.
Business influence -
But in the tug-of-war between the Capitol's two power players, industry more than held its own. Business-related groups dominated the list of organizations with the most influence, according to a review of hundreds of bills.
The Sacramento Bee and California Watch examined the final analyses written by legislative staff for all 906 bills introduced this year that listed supporters and opponents. For each group whose stand was registered on at least 10 bills, the news organizations tallied the number of cases in which supporters' bills were signed by the governor and opponents' bills stalled or were vetoed. Either scenario counted as a "win" for that group.
While such a tally is imperfect - it does not assess all influence exerted under the dome - it captures the outcome of the legislative year for many who carry clout at the Capitol.
Interviews with dozens of key people confirmed a trend suggested by the numbers: The weak economy was a major factor as groups decided which bills to push and lawmakers made up their minds.
Angie Wei, a lobbyist for the California Labor Federation, said 2011 was better for workers "than under any year under Arnold Schwarzenegger." Even so, Wei said, the state's financial reality made her union less aggressive.
The labor group sponsored AB400, which would have required employers to provide paid sick days for their workers. But Wei said the union asked lawmakers to hold the bill in committee because "we didn't think it was the right time to do it."
The business lobby wielded much of its influence through JobsPAC, a political action committee that collects millions from insurance, oil, tobacco, pharmaceutical and other companies to make independent expenditures in key races.
Last year, the committee spent $9.2 million statewide, a portion of it supporting candidates thought to be business-friendly in four key state Senate districts: Republicans Sam Blakeslee of San Luis Obispo and Anthony Cannella of Ceres (Stanislaus County) and Democrats Juan Vargas of San Diego and Lou Correa of Santa Ana (Orange County).
By session's end, Blakeslee and Cannella voted the California Chamber of Commerce's way on each of the 13 important business bills listed in the chamber's scorecard. Correa went the chamber's way 69 percent of the time, tops among Democrats.
Some groups that spend a lot on lobbying and political contributions show up on few bill analyses, making it hard to measure how much they win.
Private lobbying -
Interest groups typically are listed as supporters or opponents because they sent lawmakers letters stating their position. But nothing compels a group to write such letters. Some entities prefer to lobby by meeting privately with legislators, and legislative committees have different approaches to determine whom to list in their bill analyses.
But the findings broadly illustrate that business did better than might have been expected at the Capitol, where Democrats control both houses of the Legislature and, after several years under Schwarzenegger, now occupy the governor's office as well.
The political domination of Democrats means many Republican bills based on ideas generated by business interests did not proceed very far in the lawmaking process. Bills sponsored by labor groups were more likely to pass through the Democratic-controlled houses and make it to the governor's desk.
Yet even with a Democratic governor who received much of his campaign backing from labor unions, business interests still held sway - albeit mostly by playing defense. Labor lobbyists, meanwhile, said they were more selective than usual in advancing bills that would cost money and put lawmakers in an unpleasant political situation.
"The arguments business has made, that companies and job creators have made for years, are resonating more with Democratic legislators" given the state's financial situation, said Robert Callahan, a lobbyist for TechAmerica, a trade group that represents more than 1,000 technology companies.
TechAmerica succeeded on 11 of the 12 bills that it backed.
Two key victories, Callahan said, were defeating legislation that would have rolled back some tax credits. One, SB508, proposed including sunset dates in all new tax breaks so they would be phased out after a period of time. Another, SB364, sought to allow the state to charge a fine and take back the money from a tax incentive if a company laid off at least 10 percent of its employees in a year.
Labor unions supported both bills, arguing that the state should be more careful about handing out tax breaks, given its budget woes. TechAmerica and other business groups opposed them, saying the first bill painted all tax breaks with the same brush, and the second created too much uncertainty for employers. Brown vetoed both bills with short messages saying they were too broad.
The vetoes also stack up as wins for the California Taxpayers Association and California Chamber of Commerce, which joined TechAmerica in opposing both bills. The chamber had a good year, despite supporting Brown's Republican opponent, Meg Whitman, in last year's gubernatorial race. In the Legislature this year, chamber lobbyists fended off 25 of the 30 bills the group labeled "job killers." They persuaded Brown to veto four of the five that made it to his desk.
"From a political standpoint, when the economy goes down and business is what can bring you back, then people listen to business," said Marc Burgat, vice president of government relations for the California Chamber of Commerce.
One of the "job-killer" bills Brown vetoed was AB325, which would have required employers to offer up to three days of unpaid bereavement leave to workers who lose a loved one. The chamber made the case that California already requires several types of leave and that adding another would be a burden on employers who may be juggling requests from several workers. It also argued that the bill would have established broad rights for workers to sue, a view that was repeated in Brown's veto message.
After Brown finished considering the bills on his desk in mid-October, the chamber produced a 2 1/2-minute video praising the governor and touting the success of its lobbying campaign.
"As business grows, we employ more people, we pay more taxes and the general fund grows," Burgat said. "I think that message has resonated."
This story was produced as a collaboration between Laurel Rosenhall of the Sacramento Bee and Chase Davis of California Watch.