The biggest single gathering of business lobbyists in California takes place during the meetings of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, the agency that runs our bus and train lines.
Nothing in the annals of California lobbying has ever equaled it. A total of 1,234 men and women are paid to influence the MTA’s decisions, 179 more than those who lobby the Legislature.
A substantial number of them were present last Wednesday when the MTA board debated the agency’s $3.7-billion budget at a meeting in the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors’ chambers. In fact, most of the people in the room were lobbyists.
That’s because of the size of the budget. When every other level of government is broke, the MTA--fueled by sales tax revenues set aside for transportation--is building transit lines and buying buses and trains. But to get a contract, companies need a lobbyist to guide them through the maze of MTA politics and procedures.
And if you’re just an average citizen trying to find out if they’re going to put a train line in back of your house, forget it.
When I first started attending transit board meetings more than a decade ago, there were no lobbyists around. Transit was local government’s stepchild, unloved and unfunded. The hot lobbyists were at City Hall or the Hall of Administration, putting in the fix for high-rolling real estate people.
After voters approved the sales tax increase for transit, smooth-looking men and women in nicely cut suits took seats next to the rumpled gadflies who had formed a small but dedicated audience. Soon the lobbyists outnumbered them, and by the time old transit agencies were merged into the Metropolitan Transportation Authority earlier this year, the lobbyist contingent had reached its present strength.
To understand what the lobbyists do, imagine you own an engineering firm trying for a contract.
You may need subcontractors. The MTA has strict rules requiring participation of minority- and female-owned firms in such joint ventures.
You need one who’s qualified and politically acceptable. A firm wouldn’t want a Latino subcontractor, for example, who is an enemy of the powerful MTA board chairman, Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alatorre.
“Ninety percent of lobbying is knowledge of the process, knowing what the rules are and getting information, and 10% is persuading people to go your way,” said Michael S. Gagan of the lobbying firm of Rose & Kindel, a major MTA player.
Rose & Kindel has a representative at meetings of all MTA committees, including those working on the technical side of transit projects. The firm publishes a monthly newsletter, MTA Report, telling about contracts, staff changes and budgets.
MTA Report publicizes the firm. Its circulation list reaches from Los Angeles to Japan and Canada. “And it forces us to be disciplined, keeping on top of things,” said Gagan.
The lobbyists also know how to influence the powerful. The MTA has some of the strictest lobbying rules in the country. If board members, most of whom are elected officials, receive a contribution of more than $250 from a company, they can’t vote on the firm’s proposals for a year. But that doesn’t keep the lobbyists from the arena. Last July, Rose & Kindel partner Maureen Kindel threw a breakfast reception to help board member Stan Sanders pay off a deficit incurred in his unsuccessful campaign for mayor of Los Angeles. “He’ll be a tremendous addition to the MTA,” Kindel, a former fund-raiser and top adviser to Mayor Tom Bradley, wrote to potential guests. The price was $250, under the limit.
Did the party give Kindel influence with Sanders? “I doubt it,” Gagan said. “Maureen has known Stan for years, and if she needed to talk to him she could easily do it.”
But the the huge number of business lobbyists and their pervasive presence at MTA meetings shows they have become intertwined with the huge agency and the contracts it awards. The author of the law creating the MTA, Assemblyman Richard Katz (D-Sylmar), feared this and insisted on lobbyist regulation.
As a result, said Ruth Holton of Common Cause, the campaign reform group, “the MTA has some of the better rules on lobbying.”
But smart people can find loopholes in the tightest rules, or simply ignore them.
Remember California’s famous political reform act of the mid-'70s? Lobbyists were restricted to spending $10 a month on lawmakers--enough, said reformer Jerry Brown, for a hamburger and a Coke. Fifteen years later, the Capitol lobbyists have more power than ever.
This could happen with the MTA. There are too many big contracts, players, complicated rules and lobbyists. It would take a substantial bureaucracy to regulate them all.
That’s a pretty formidable task for an outfit that is struggling to get the trains and buses to run on time.