Editorial

What's worse than cities and counties spending millions to lobby Sacramento? Not spending millions to lobby Sacramento

Local governments in California have spent $24.3 million so far this year to lobby state lawmakers. That’s more than any other sector spent trying to directly influence Sacramento.

By comparison, oil and gas companies shelled out less than $17 million — even though the Legislature was working on a cap-and-trade bill of enormous importance to the industry. Another interest group famously busy in Sacramento, labor unions, spent only $6.8 million, The Times’ John Myers reported.

Those figures are a bit misleading, however, because energy companies, labor unions and other private-sector players have another, potentially more effective way to get their message across: campaign donations. Appropriately, state law bars local governments from spending public money on donations to political campaigns. That leaves lobbying as local governments’ main weapon to push back against legislation that affects themselves and their constituents.

And there’s no shortage of things to push back on. State lawmakers hold tremendous budgetary and policy-making power over school districts, cities, counties and other local agencies, thanks in large part to Proposition 13’s restrictions on property taxes. Counties are particularly dependent on the budget decisions made by the state Legislature, as they are responsible for implementing many state-funded programs. Thousands of bills are filed every year, many of them with direct or indirect impacts on local communities. Who has time to run a city and keep an eye on Sacramento?

Consider just a few bills pending in the Legislature that would have profound impact on local government.

SCA 12 by state Sen. Tony Mendoza (D-Artesia) seeks to increase the size of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors from five to seven members.

AB 1250, sponsored by the Service Employees International Union and authored by Assemblyman Reginald Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles), would set rules for when counties could hire private service providers, limiting the supervisors’ ability to make their own decisions about when to use contractors instead of county employees. (City governments were included in an earlier version of the bill but removed after lobbying by cities.)

SB 649 pits cities and counties against AT&T, Verizon and other telecommunications companies that have donated many millions of dollars to legislators’ campaigns in recent years. The companies are rolling out new equipment for the next generation of mobile phone service and want a state law giving them the right to use the utility and street light poles owned by local government for a set fee. The bill has been advancing over the vociferous objections of cities and counties.

Local governments don’t always play defense. Sometimes they push the state for something that would benefit their community; for example, when Los Angeles was bidding to host the Summer Olympic Games, it lobbied successfully for help paying any cost overruns it might incur. Cities were also active in lobbying for SB 1, the package of gas tax and vehicle fees passed earlier this year that will raise $5.2 billion annually for roads and other transportation projects.

Cities, counties and other local governments and their elected leaders aren’t necessarily more immune to special interests than their state counterparts. But they are, by design, closer to the needs and concerns of constituents — and likely to hear about it if they don’t serve the public’s interest first.

In a perfect world, local elected officials wouldn’t need to shell out public money to keep track of all the proposals coming out of Sacramento, or to advise state lawmakers on how best to represent the constituents they share. But with a state as vast as California and a political system that relies so heavily on funding from special interests, this is a necessary check.

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