Community Commentary: Lobbying is a statewide, local problem

The Economist article "Lessons from California: The perils of extreme democracy" sums up the political environment in California like a Webster's definition.

It's alarming not because of its explanation of broken state government under the thumb of special interests who control between 70% to 90% of the state's budget. It's alarming because local special-interest groups have found they can make just as much money at the city level as they can in Sacramento, at a fraction of the cost and none of the regulations.

In Laguna Beach, so-called activists have gone from sponsoring initiatives like the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) to writing them on their own behalf, but the writing is on the wall for what they provide — an administrative cash cow for the lobbyist who wrote them.

The MLPA started life as a feel-good, $300,000-a-year idea deemed as a secondary insurance and not a solution. At the start, MLPA quickly ran into funding problems and was shelved until they could find funding.

Oil companies, who where faced with cleaning up four off-shore oil wells at the cost of billions of dollars, offered a compromise that would allow them to unload the liability of the clean-up cost on the taxpayer and in return the oil interests would pay for the cost of the MLPA, and a lobbyist's dream was born.

The cost would be based on money from the oil companies and not the state of California. The oil money was shot down, leaving the state holding the inflated bill for MLPA and instead of a $650,000-a-year budget like the one for the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary, it grew into a $55 million yearly budget. State lobbyists at this point needed local lobbyist support and now those same unregulated lobbyists are sponsoring local initiatives like the Open Space Initiative in Laguna Beach.

MLPA has accomplished one thing: forcing the closure of almost 25% of the state parks and the layoffs of more than 200 people in order to cover the cost of this initiative without any oversight while confirming that special interests run the state at taxpayer expense.

The first rule in lobbyist-backed initiatives is to go where government has not, and get lots of money from special interests for doing so, even during budget shortage. MLPA was set up to provide selective areas along the coast a chance to recover. The California lobbyist said the ecosystem needed to recover from overfishing, thus enabling it to break from known cost guidelines and stray from clean-water laws where the state would have to take over.

The open-space tax will be subject to the whims of its lobbyist, and just like MLPA, they have already found a great way to spend money on the undisclosed costs like fire-resistant landscapes and upkeep on the open space — which in Laguna Beach is a blank check that will be freely drawn from the taxpayers' accounts long after the Open Space Initiative is set to expire.

Laguna Beach has one primary, unregulated lobbying group that is responsible for electing the majority of the council members and the Design Review Board, which controls building in the city — and its senior leadership is clearly for sale. As seen when they tried to develop land purchased by the city for open space, the lobbyist (for the unregulated group and MLPA) was claiming to be a concerned former mayor acting for the good of all, while the developer publicly named that person as being a paid consultant for the project.

Now this consultant who has already been under review by the California Fair Political Practices Commission is trying to raise taxes in the city of Laguna Beach to buy open space land. The people of Laguna Beach greatly value the cities surrounding the environment for serious, significant reasons, but readily adopt environmental rules that favor special interests and the city itself fails to meet basic environmental clean-water laws.

Now, these lobbyists are looking at tens of millions of dollars from the pockets of Laguna Beach taxpayers in the same way that state lobbyists have caused California to stumble financially. Currently the state Senate is seeking to pass Senate Bill 31 to end the unregulated practices of local lobbyists.

JOHN KREBER is a Laguna Beach resident.

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