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PRO: We need to retain our lobbying laws Featured

6:31am EDT July 29, 2005
Regulation of political lobbying is an established practice throughout the United States. Nearly every state government requires lobbyists to report their lobbying activities.

In addition, many of the largest local jurisdictions in California have such regulations, including Los Angeles and Santa Cruz counties, and the cities of San Francisco, San Diego, San Jose, Sacramento, Oakland and Los Angeles.

The city of Los Angeles has the most extensive regulation in the state and one of the most comprehensive laws in the country. As a co-author of many of the provisions of the Los Angeles city law, I am proud that L.A. is leading the way in lobbying regulation.

I am very surprised that 30 years after Californians passed the Political Reform Act of 1974 that some are questioning the need for lobbying regulation. The Political Reform Act, of which I was a principal co-author, required state lobbyists to register, disclose quarterly and refrain from making gifts of more than $10 a day per lobbyist per legislator or person being lobbied (no more than two hamburgers and a coke, its proponents argued).

The bottom-line question is this: Should lobbyists be treated differently than other citizens? Why should they be subject to restrictions on their activities, and why should they have to disclose transactions that the rest of us don’t have to?

The answer is as simple as the question: Citizens have a right to expect that lobbying of its public officials be exposed to sunlight. Lobbyists should not be mixing lobbying with gift-giving or with making policy.

The city of Los Angeles has rules that nearly 200 lobbyists follow. These require that lobbyists register and file quarterly reports indicating the names of their clients, how much they are paid and how much is spent on lobbying city officials. I can’t imagine that anyone (other than the filers) would object to these modest disclosure rules.

In addition to disclosure, however, Los Angeles imposes other restrictions on lobbyists. In his first few days in office, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa convinced the city council to enact legislation that had been long stalled. The council unanimously approved key ethics reforms, including a ban that prohibits L.A. lobbyists from also serving on city commissions.

While this ban only affects four current commissioner lobbyists, it sends a strong signal that those lobbying city hall should not at the same time be formulating and adopting city policies. Other adopted reforms require lobbyists to file their reports electronically starting next year.

Lobbyists in Los Angeles are already subject to gift restrictions. They may not make gifts of more than $25 to city officials they lobby, and their employers may not provide gifts to public officials totaling more than $100 per person each year.

The L.A. Ethics Commission does a good job of providing information to lobbyists and others attempting to influence city government. Lobbyists are required to attend information sessions at least once every two years. The commission has an active enforcement staff that monitors compliance with the law and brings administrative actions as needed.

One area needs improvement: Statements are filed quarterly and then gather dust in filing cabinets. The Ethics Commission previously issued quarterly and annual reports summarizing all the data provided by lobbyists in an easy-to-read format. These reports were often cited in press stories that listed the top lobbyists and lobbying firms in the city. The press would also use the commission’s reports to note which issues were the most heavily lobbied in city hall.

The commission stopped releasing these reports in 2003, citing a lack of resources. I think it is important for it to resume its compilation of these reports. Regrettably, unless the Ethics Commission does it, no one else will. Would the world end if we repealed all our lobbying laws? Of course not. Would it make a difference in terms of how people feel about city government? Yes, it would.

It would mean that lobbyists could give unlimited gifts to officials and their families, sit on boards and commissions while lobbying city government, and spend and receive unlimited amounts of funds from clients without the public knowing who was paying for their services and how much was being spent on particular issues.

We would all feel a little less confident in how our government operated and how our public officials were making their decisions.

Robert M. Stern is president of the Center for Governmental Studies (www.cgs.org). He is the principal co-author of the Political Reform Act of 1974 (Proposition 9, approved by 70 percent of California’s voters) and the Los Angeles City Ethics Act of 1990. He is former general counsel of the California Fair Political Practices Commission, the agency that regulates state lobbyists. He has authored or co-authored numerous books and articles, including “The New Gold Rush: Financing California’s Legislative Elections,” “Democracy by Initiative: Shaping California’s Fourth Branch of Government” and “Ethics in the States: The Laboratories of Reform.”

The Center for Governmental Studies is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that studies and drafts reform proposals for state and local governments and public interest groups. The center has prepared a number of reports that examine campaign financing, judicial elections, media outreach, the initiative process and ethical standards. For more than 20 years, CGS has been a leading authority in the fields of campaign finance reform and community engagement, as well as other areas of governance and public policy. CGS identifies governance, social and economic problems, conducts in-depth studies, and proposes solutions. CGS then works with government agencies and community organizations to implement solutions through new laws, regulations, improved procedures, and technological systems.