Shining Light Into A Big Black Hole (Or The Undisclosed Millions Big Industry Spends Lobbying)

The Fair Political Practices Commission is promoting new lobbyist disclosure rules after massive spending by the oil industry at the end of the last legislative session killed a law that would have reduced petroleum use in California by 50%. 
 
The Western States Petroleum Association, “WSPA,” spent a record $6.7 million lobbying to block the legislation in the third quarter of 2015. But the public will never know just what they spent it on. That’s because $6.1 million disappeared in the black hole of lobbying disclosures – a catch-all category called “other payments to influence” that allows lobbyists to hide millions of dollars in spending on public affairs.
 
What could “public affairs” include? Public relations, political consulting, grassroots campaigns, coalition building, publications, and media relations. It could also mean phone banking, canvassing, robocalls, paid spokespeople, creation of “grassroots" surrogates, polling, graphic design, advertisement production, printing, event production, and strategic consultants (also known as lobbyists that don’t have to register.)  
 
The new rules under consideration do pull advertising out of that morass. But if the commission is serious about the need to “stop improper influence over public officials by wealthy individuals and organizations,” as Commission Chair Jodi Remke told the Senate Elections Committee on Friday, they have to go further. 
 
One lump sum payment to a public affairs consultant could conceal all kinds of spending. The potential for obfuscation, especially of spending that often targets the public itself as a way to influence their representatives in the legislature, is so great that more detailed reporting is necessary. Calling all of these activities “public affairs” and allowing lump-sum reporting, again, would just give lobbyists a different black hole to hide in. 
 
As I wrote in comments Consumer Watchdog submitted to the FPPC, the commission should require disclosure of all subvendors over a $500 threshold paid for public affairs activities, much as candidate and ballot measure committees already report. Basic information – name, total payments and the reason for the payment – would be enough to give the public a real picture of who’s spending what to influence legislation. 
 
In WSPA’s case, its spending was so over-the-top that at least some of it ended up in the public eye. The oil industry created television advertising and print mailers sent to unknown numbers of Californians that accused Senate pro Tem Kevin de León, sponsor of SB 350, of “fighting to empower unelected bureaucrats in Sacramento, and taking away power and choice from your own constituents.” The top of the mailer warned: “Gasoline Restrictions hurt families in LA.” If the legislation passed, the mailer claimed it would make it tougher for families to drive to work or buy groceries. The supposed source was a grassroots-sounding group called the California Drivers Alliance. 
 
Chair Remke got it right when she said: “The public is entitled to know who is trying to influence legislative or administrative action.” To make that happen, the Commission must require lobbyists for the biggest industries in the state to come clean about not only direct spending on advertising, but all the spending that supports their public relations campaigns to sway lawmakers and the public. 

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