State’s business lobby thriving

Business interests were the top bill-killers in Sacramento during Gov. Jerry Brown’s first year back in office, as concerns about the state’s weak economy cut into labor’s newfound clout.

Legislative data shows business interests wielded strong influence despite a Capitol dominated by Democrats in the Legislature and governor’s office. Business lobbyists defeated bills that would have cut back tax breaks, required employers to give workers unpaid bereavement leave and prolonged the foreclosure process.

In the current economy, “all legislators are more sensitive to the argument that something would be a job killer or harmful for investment or expansion,” said Dorothy Rothrock, a lobbyist for the California Manufacturers and Technology Association, which represents major businesses around the state. “That’s made it easier for us to stop or amend bills to make them less hostile or burdensome.”

To be sure, Brown’s current term has been good for labor unions, too. They successfully pushed bills that limit the state’s ability to use private contractors, allow local governments to require union construction crews on public works projects and reduce the use of electronic self-checkout lanes in grocery stores.

But in the tug-of-war between the Capitol’s two power players, industry more than held its own. Business-related groups dominated the list of organizations with the most influence, according to a review of hundreds of bills.

The business lobby wielded much of its influence through JobsPAC, a political action committee that collects millions from insurance, oil, tobacco, pharmaceutical and other companies to make independent expenditures in key races. Last year, the committee spent $9.2 million statewide, a portion of it supporting candidates thought to be business-friendly in four key Senate districts: Republicans Sam Blakeslee of San Luis Obispo and Anthony Cannella of Ceres and Democrats Juan Vargas of San Diego and Lou Correa of Santa Ana. By session’s end, Blakeslee and Cannella voted the California Chamber of Commerce’s way on each of the 13 important business bills listed in the chamber’s scorecard. Correa went the chamber’s way 69 percent of the time, tops among Democrats.

The Sacramento Bee and California Watch examined the final analyses written by legislative staff for all 906 bills introduced this year that listed supporters and opponents. For each group whose stand was registered on at least 10 bills, the news organizations tallied the number of cases in which supporters’ bills were signed by the governor and opponents’ bills stalled or were vetoed. Either scenario counted as a “win” for that group.

While such a tally is imperfect — it does not assess all influence exerted under the dome — it captures the outcome of the legislative year for many who carry clout at the Capitol.

Interviews with dozens of key players confirmed a trend suggested by the numbers: The weak economy was a major factor as groups decided which bills to push and lawmakers made up their minds.

Angie Wei, a lobbyist for the California Labor Federation, said 2011 was better for workers “than under any year under Arnold Schwarzenegger.” Even so, Wei said the state’s financial reality made her union less aggressive.

Among other findings:

Labor and business wielded their power differently. Labor groups generally won by passing new laws, while business groups mostly fought battles to maintain the status quo.

The two groups that prevailed on the largest number of bills this year were the California Chamber of Commerce, which won on 62 of 87 bills, and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which triumphed on 61 of 106 bills.

Associations representing real estate agents, bankers and insurance companies took positions on far fewer bills, but won at least 85 percent of the time.

Interest groups exerted their influence with money — combined, they spent a total of $216.1 million on lobbying in the first nine months of the year, a 6 percent increase from the year before.

The California Manufacturers and Technology Association spent $1.9 million and won half its legislative battles.

The American Civil Liberties Union and Sierra Club, meanwhile, each spent less than $350,000 on lobbyists during the first nine months of the year, yet did well in a Legislature in which majority Democrats are sympathetic to their causes.

Campaign spending on legislative races didn’t necessarily result in a high success rate in the Legislature. The 15 groups that spent the most on winning legislative candidates and took positions on at least 10 bills had an average win rate in the Capitol of 63 percent.

Still, special interests and other donors spent $229 million in political contributions on state candidates in 2010, $105.8 million of it on candidates for the Legislature, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. They contributed $36.3 million more to state candidates through independent expenditure committees, which cannot legally coordinate with candidates’ campaigns but can spend an unlimited amount to support or oppose a candidate.

The Democrats’ control of Sacramento means many Republican bills influenced by business interests did not proceed far in the lawmaking process.

Yet even with a Democratic governor who received much of his campaign backing from labor unions, business interests still held sway — albeit mostly by playing defense. Labor lobbyists, meanwhile, said they were more selective than usual in advancing bills that would cost money and put lawmakers in an unpleasant political situation.

“The arguments business has made, that companies and job creators have made for years, are resonating more with Democratic legislators given the (state’s financial) situation,” said Robert Callahan, a lobbyist for TechAmerica, a trade group that represents roughly 1,000 technology companies.

TechAmerica succeeded on 11 of the 12 bills on which its position was listed in an analysis.

AFSCME — the labor union that represents 1.6 million public-sector workers — produced a full-color 44-page report to wrap up its year of legislative influence.

The union sponsored 20 bills in 2011. Twelve of them made it to Brown, who signed nine. Among them: AB 366 benefits mental hospital employees, including those at Atascadero State Hospital, by streamlining court procedures for giving anti-psychotic medication to certain patients, SB 857 strengthens public employees’ right to strike, and SB 930 removes the fingerprinting requirement for recipients of In-Home Supportive Services.

But AFSCME took positions on dozens more bills, sending a letter to lawmakers on almost every one. That broad approach is typical of the union’s lobbying strategy, said AFSCME lobbyist Willie Pelote.

Laurel Rosenhall is a reporter for The Sacramento Bee. Chase Davis is a reporter with California Watch. This story was produced as a collaboration between The Sacramento Bee and California Watch.