Special interests capitalize on Legislature’s end-of-session chaos

It happens every year at this time. Overtired legislators are only days from the deadline to pass new laws, and there is so much bustle in the Capitol that keeping track of all the drafts of bills is almost impossible. That’s when special interests can capitalize on the chaos.

It’s an opportunity to rush proposals to a Senate or Assembly floor vote with little vetting, media scrutiny or public notice. And this year, many groups are scurrying to do just that, convincing friendly lawmakers to use arcane procedures that allow them to step around rules meant to expose proposed laws to plenty of sunlight.

“It’s an easier way to, frankly, pull a fast one,” said Joe Nation, a former Democratic assemblyman who now lectures about public policy at Stanford.

As the session deadline of midnight Tuesday approaches, a Silicon Valley software company, a retailers’ business group, a medical data firm and one of the country’s biggest oil companies have been among those pressing their case.

Lobbyists hustle to corral legislators as they enter and exit the chambers, making their pitch in hushed tones. They may urge lawmakers to wipe out the contents of existing bills and replace them with entirely new legislation. The overdue state budget offers another opportunity for stealth special interest requests, which can be slipped in as budget language is cobbled together quickly and largely out of public view.

Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries (R-Lake Elsinore) recently issued a “mushroom alert” to his constituents because of the sheer number of bills sprouting up “in the dark of night.”

“In short I’m telling you this because it is a terrible way to do the public’s business,” Jeffries wrote.

On Aug. 20, the last day to rewrite legislation without a special waiver, Assemblywoman Norma Torres (D- Pomona) gutted the contents of a little-noticed bill that would change how some public meetings must be advertised and replaced it with a measure being pushed by the California Retailers Assn.

The bill, AB 1581, now would allow retailers, including large chains like Wal-Mart and Jack in the Box, to move into a vacant storefront up to 120,000 square feet without filing a new environmental impact report.

“Stores mean jobs, simple as that,” said Bill Dombrowski, the association’s president. He said the retailers have been discussing the bill with Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D- Los Angeles) all year, and it was introduced late because “that’s how long it took to negotiate it.”

The bill advanced after a hastily arranged 30-minute hearing Wednesday.

The legislation’s late unveiling left lawmakers and environmentalists scrambling to sort out its effects and the companies it benefits. “It could have easily been brought up earlier,” said Sierra Club lobbyist Michael Endicott. Dombrowski brushed aside questions of process, “Can we get over ourselves and just do something to help the job market?”

Environmentalists are on particularly high alert after the Legislature last year carved out an 11th-hour exemption to the state’s landmark environmental review law so a football stadium could be built in the City of Industry.

Stadium backers in downtown Los Angeles are exploring a similar exemption this year. And oil giant Chevron is seeking Sacramento’s help in jump-starting construction on a refinery retrofit that local environmentalists have successfully sued to block.

Chevron said it is exploring a number of options, and the type of exemption granted to stadium backers last year was not its first choice. Opponents are mobilizing to stop such an exemption nonetheless. “Don’t give it to them!” said a memo distributed to colleagues by Assemblyman Pedro Nava (D- Santa Barbara).

Silicon Valley software maker Intuit, meanwhile, is making clear to lawmakers exactly what it wants: the elimination of a free program through which the state completes the tax forms for Californians with simple returns. The program is a threat to Intuit’s popular TurboTax software.

The company argues it offers free filing assistance to low-income taxpayers that is superior to the state program. State tax officials disagree. They noted in a letter to lawmakers that Intuit for several years has been sending lobbyists to the Capitol at the end of legislative sessions in an attempt to kill the program.

Intuit’s maneuvering prompted Sen. Lois Wolk (D- Davis) and Assemblyman Anthony Portantino (D-La Cañada Flintridge), both tax committee chairs in their respective chambers, to send a memo to colleagues warning that the company is “waging a last minute behind the scenes effort to abolish one of the most successful consumer programs in California.”

Rob Stutzman, a consultant for the Computer Communications Industry Assn., said the memo shows “a fair hearing clearly isn’t possible” in the tax committees. So Intuit is seeking instead to tuck its proposal into the overdue state budget. He noted the proposal could not become law without at least one hearing of the joint legislative budget committee — however hastily arranged.

Another company that has surfaced in the Capitol with the session winding down is McKesson Corp. It sells databases to hospitals and pharmacies for storing medical records and is pushing legislation that would limit its exposure to lawsuits under medical privacy laws. Its proposal follows a company security breach that put thousands of patients in danger of identity theft and exposed the company to litigation.

Legislative attorneys drafted an amendment to a bill sponsored by Sen. Rod Wright (D-Los Angeles) that would limit the liability of McKesson and other such companies when consumer privacy is breached, though Wright recently abandoned the bill.

Consumer activists expressed anger that the amendment was even drafted so late in the session.

Richard Holober, executive director of the Consumer Federation of California, said “these kind of last-minute moves are for things that won’t hold up if exposed to sunlight. It is not a good way to govern.”