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Q&A: California State Lobbying with Chris Micheli

Last month, veteran Sacramento lobbyist and law professor Chris Micheli published a unique collection of 49 essays by current and former California lobbyists. “Perspectives on State Lobbying in California” ($75, Kendall Hunt Publishing) covers an array of lobbying types, experiences and perspectives. Each contributor catalogued their background, path into the profession, notable bills, and advice for those new to the profession.

California state lobbying is such a large, influential industry that it long ago earned the nickname “The Third House” – as in third house of the State Legislature. This of course means those with the greatest means have more chance to achieve their desired outcomes. California lobbying, though, does differ from the far more unfettered version in D.C. Micheli kindly took time during the State Legislature’s spring break to delve more deeply into his book and profession.

SACTO POLITICO: This seems the first book of its kind. What was your main goal and intended audience for this essay collection?

CHRIS MICHELI: The book is indeed unique. While there are many books dealing with federal lobbying and federal lobbyists, there really is very little at the state level. My goal was to capture some of the stories, backgrounds and, importantly, advice of veteran lobbyists. Many of the contributors are still practicing; some are now retired. I thought there’s a lot of benefit to California’s capitol community beyond just lobbyists to hear these stories and the work they do.

Outside the state capitol audience, I also thought colleges and law schools with public service programs would benefit from a book like this. This includes students who may be considering the lobbying profession.

S/P: In the public mind, California lobbyists are generally balled in with D.C. lobbyists, and the stereotype of a lobbyist is that of a rich K Street influence peddler. How fair or unfair is it for California state lobbyists to be painted with that same brush?

CM: [Chuckles] Not very fair. There are some very distinct differences between lobbying in California’s capitol and the U.S. Capitol. First, California was the first state by far to require lobbying registration and disclosure of clients. It has only been the last decade or so that Congress required registration and disclosure. In contract, California has had it since 1974 when voters adopted Prop 9. So we’ve been subject to registration and public disclosure of our clients, what we are working on, what we were paid, and what gifts we give for almost 50 years now.

Second in California, lobbyists are banned from personally donating to those they lobby. This was challenged in litigation under the First Amendment, and basically the courts said, “Yes, due to the potential corrupting influence, California is okay in banning lobbyist contributions.” So if I am registered to lobby the State Legislature, I can give to candidates at the local government level and to federal candidates, but I can’t give to state-level candidates.

Also in D.C., they don’t have the $10 per month gift limitation rule. We also have a prohibition on contingency fees, whereas there is no such prohibition on that at the federal level. There, federal lobbyists can do very well financially because they can receive a contingency fee based on the amount of an appropriation they were able to secure for their client.

S/P: The book provides an interesting walk through 50 years of California political history. This included the entry of women into lobbying and elected state office, the Napkin Deal of 1987, deregulation of state energy markets that led to the Enron scandal, and California’s immediate response to 9/11 that involved, of all things, car rental regulations. How satisfying is it to be near the center of so much state history?

CM: For someone who was a political science/public service major at UC Davis, and as someone who loves the legislative process and the institution, it’s really one of the best parts of being a lobbyist and why I enjoy it so much. We are part of the process. We are part of law making. The issues of the day that are being debated by the California Legislature and the governor are things that my colleagues and I in the lobbying corps are all a part of. That is definitely a pretty exciting thing, and one of the main reasons why I love what I do.

S/P: The 49 essays cover a lot, but conspicuous by its absence was much discussion of the mother’s milk of politics: money. California lobbyists can’t give donations, but many help their clients strategize PAC donations and independent expenditures. Comment on the important role political money plays in many legislative battles.

CM: Obviously, some of the most successful lobbyists have well-heeled clients who are significant political players, but you also have some of the most successful lobbyists whose clients don’t give anything. They represent local governments or nonprofits. So it runs the gamut.

Certainly [money] plays a role, but when I speak to colleges or law students, I always try to dispel the notion that, despite what the media often portrays, it plays a dominant role. I think most legislators and lobbyists are really focused on the policy debate and the policy rationale for or against a particular piece of legislation. Sure money sits in the background, and those who are big donors are often very influential, but at the end of the day in my mind, it is not the dispositive aspect at all.

S/P: I chuckled over how often your writers gave a version of the advice “don’t be a pr--k” and “never be rude to the scheduler or receptionist.” Given how often this advice was given, it seemed it’s advice too often ignored around the State Capitol. Is that the case?

CM: The reality is there is always somebody who either takes things personally or makes things personal in this profession. That is rather short-sighted. You should always treat people with respect.

As the saying goes, your enemy today is your friend tomorrow, and vice versa. Those people who started off as a scheduler or a fellow, can one day become leg director and one day become chief of staff. We’ve also had fellows who have become members of the Legislature. The current Assembly Republican Leader James Gallagher got his start as an Assembly fellow.

S/P: California’s Political Reform Act of 1974 introduced much needed transparency for political donations to combat big money influence. But in the decades since, the cost of a winning Assembly or State Senate campaign has skyrocketed, which means everyone needs to be backed by big money. Thus mere transparency has lost much of its potency as a disinfectant for our democratic system, especially as big donors can sidestep donation limits with unlimited independent expenditures. Do you think the California system is due for some updating?

CM: No. Like many other things in life, it is a balancing act, right. We do have the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution about the freedom of speech, press and religion. There are some who view things as not regulated enough and others who see too much regulation. I can see the pros and the cons on the so-called dark money kind of stuff, but I come down on the side of believing that while we have an imperfect system, it’s better than that which exists in a lot of places. It has flaws. It’s got some warts, but I will take our form of democracy over a lot of other things going on these days.

I also like that state limits for donations are pretty low. They are $4,900 per election, and there is a CPI index so you don’t have to keep going back every few years to raise the statutory limits to keep up with inflation.

To me, the number one issue is adequate and timely disclosure. When you get closer to an election, you have 24-hour reporting. I think California has got a pretty robust system of reporting, and everything is available through the Secretary of State web site. The public can find everything pretty quickly and make a determination for themselves. Say if they don’t like that one candidate is taking too much special interest money or too much money from Sacramento groups and not enough from their legislative district.

S/P: In Fred Taugher’s essay, he noted how much more robust media coverage of the State Legislature was then. He said a 1985 fight over an interstate banking effort was well covered, including “by the Sacramento Bee in dozens of major stories.” But given today’s shrunken newsrooms, even big pieces of legislation get far less coverage. Has this affected legislative dynamics at all?

CM: It is true the Capitol press corps was much larger when I started 25 years ago. There were a lot more reporters in the back of chambers and milling about than we see today. I would probably say it has shrunk by at least 40% or 50%. There are fewer media outlets part of the Capitol press corps, and those that are still around, if they had five reporters before, might now have only two.

I know a lot of L.A. delegation legislators, for example, complain about this. They say that the five members of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors or 15 members of the City Council get far more coverage by the L.A. Times than do the state legislators.

But the reality is most of the day-to-day that lobbyists work on never got much coverage. These are the more mundane or run-of-the-mill bills. As it was 25 years ago, most capitol coverage remains most focused on the bigger ticket items. Today those issues are gun control, housing, homelessness, and climate change.

S/P: Bev Hansen noted in her essay that “lobbyists don’t exist in other countries, not at least in the free-market sense that they do in the United States.” In your opinion, what are some of the pros and cons of this pay-to-play approach? After all, a free-market approach does mean those with greater means have greater access and influence.

CM: To some degree, everybody and every interest has some kind of voice. Even the pure nonprofits have volunteer lobbyists. As an example, I think about Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, M.A.D.D. I worked with them about 10, 12 years ago on some legislation for doing a pilot project for mandating repeat offenders have an ignition interlock device. Here you had parents who had all lost a child in a drunk driving accident. They were all volunteers, and they came up to Sacramento. They lobbied with legislators, testified in committees, told their stories which were very impactful. And the bill by then Assemblyman – now L.A. City Attorney – Mike Feuer was enacted, and the pilot projects were done.

There have been a lot of successful unpaid lobbying efforts. It’s like anything else. Doctors, lawyers, accountants— everyone has some voice. But obviously, there are those who can afford better or larger representation than others.

S/P: If you were given the ability to wave a magic wand and change one thing about our government, what would you like to see changed?

CM: I think the biggest issue in my mind – and it is probably not one of the concerns of the average citizen – is the sheer volume of legislation. It is too much of a bill factory. I think it should do fewer bills. I think it should spend more time studying different options and the proposed law changes before they run things quickly through the process. And I think they should do a lot more oversight of government and the Executive Branch. See how those programs they created and funded are running and what changes need to be made. The only way to accomplish that oversight and give more time for review is for them to just stop processing so many bills.

S/P: Yes, I think I saw in one essay that every two-year session produces about 5,000 proposed bills. Is some of this just the product of California’s huge size and being the fifth largest economy in the world?

CM: Sure, that’s part of it, but I also think there are a lot of legislators who view their worth – or perceive how the electorate views them – by whether they produce a lot of bills and new laws. In other words, you see at the end of each year’s session a lot of news releases from legislators and reports to their constituents go out and say, “This year, these 7 or 10 bills got enacted into law. I’m working on your behalf and doing good work in Sacramento.”

Of the three branches, they are granted by the state constitution that they are the law-making branch. Therefore, their focus should be on lawmaking. I don’t disagree with that. I just don’t think you need to do so many bills.

It is sort of like what Jerry Brown said after the first year of his second tour of duty as governor. After finishing the bill signing session and signing some 700 bills, he said, “I don’t believe there are 700 good ideas that need to become law.”

S/P: Any final thoughts?

CM: I think it is important to pass along one’s experiences and knowledge to the next generation of lobbyists. The lobbying profession is an honorable one, and we should all work to ensure that continues. It is important to respect the institution and the process at all times, and that needs to be instilled in those entering this profession. Lobbyists play an important role in the legislative process, representing their clients’ interests and working with legislators and their staff to improve legislation and enact valuable law changes.

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