Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Hancock bill would hike lobbyists' fees

SACRAMENTO — Lobbyists will continue to dominate the influence-peddling game with or without campaign finance reform, but Assemblywoman Loni Hancock thinks they should at least pay their fair share for the privilege.

The Berkeley Democrat is proposing to increase the registration fees that lobbyists, lobbying firms and lobbyist client/employers are charged as a way to pay for a pilot program for public financing.

Hancock's bill, AB583, held over Monday to review costs in the Senate Appropriations committee, would offer public financing to candidates for Secretary of State. If approved by voters in 2010, it would apply to the 2014 elections.

The increase in lobbyist fees — from $25 every two years to $350 a year — would raise $350,000 a year to cover the pilot project.

Taxpayers could also contribute with a tax checkoff, which typically brings in about $320,000 a year.

"We should be having public financing for all legislative seats and statewide offices," Hancock said, "but because the state is in such financial crisis, we can't do that this year. So, we narrowed it to the Secretary of State's office, which regulates lobbyists and tracks them. It's a very fair fee and we need to show people that this is an idea that works."

California lobbyists pay among the lowest fees in the nation, she said. Illinois lobbyists and lobbyist employers pay fees of $350 a year, and lobbyists in Massachusetts ($1,000 a year) Advertisementand Texas ($500 a year) have higher registration fees for lobbyists, according to the California Clean Money campaign.

A number of lobbyists said they had no problem with the fee. But Jackson Gualco, head of the Institute of Governmental Advocates, which represents lobbyists, insisted the fee amounts to a tax hike and should require a two-thirds vote.

He said the fee increase also is tantamount to a forced political contribution.

"Voters have said lobbyists should not contribute to elections," Gualco said, "and now we have Ms. Hancock and her supporters saying, 'ah, but you can for the limited purpose of helping to fund this pilot project.'"

A two-thirds vote is not necessary, Hancock said, because the bill would go to the ballot for a vote of the people.

Sen. Sheila Kuehl, D-Los Angeles, a member of the Appropriations committee, said Gualco falsely connected a fee with political contributions.

"It's not the same thing when you pay a licensing fee as making a contribution, so I don't think they should be conflated," Kuehl said. "And I pay a licensing fee to be an attorney and I don't consider that to be a tax on my First Amendment expressions."

The Secretary of State's office is in charge of registering lobbyists, lobbying firms, and lobbyists employers and tracking their activity.

There are 1,230 registered lobbyists, 2,981 lobbyist employers and 372 lobbying firms. Over a four-year period, their fees would amount to $5.9 million — on top of the estimated $1.2 million from taxpayers who check off the voluntary tax contributions.

That would be more than enough to finance candidates in a race for Secretary of State, according to the California Clean Money Campaign.

Hancock's bill has been substantially scaled back from its original form two years ago, when she sought to introduce public financing for all political offices.

  • Cell Phone Users May Get Break on Fees
  • Governor’s oil-spill plan falls short, Hancock says
  • Tribes unite to discredit Berkeley lawmaker
  • Hancock pulls ahead of Chan with late fundraising push