Interest groups and their influence on policy making in California

By Chris Micheli and Tom Nussbaum

California Legislature

When we think of “special interests,” we most often associate them with lobbying legislators. However, interest groups not only actively lobby in the legislative arena, but also they are active in efforts to influence state agencies and their regulatory activities. These interest groups vary depending on the role and function of the particular state agency. Ultimately, interest groups attempt to influence policy making in California by advocating for their interests before both the legislative and executive branches of government.

What and who are these “special interests”? Arguably, anyone with a point of view on a matter of public policy is a special interest. However, we generally characterize such interest groups as those with specific public policy agendas that they try to advance with the legislative and executive branches of government. They are generally those with vested interests who are politically active.

What makes interest groups effective? The keys are often being politically powerful and socially popular. Teachers, labor unions, and public safety groups enjoy support in general from the populace. And they are politically powerful because they have mandatory dues from their members that are used in political campaigns and lobbying government. These groups raise and spend enormous sums of money for campaign contributions, their members will walk precincts, phone voters, and get to the polls to vote for their selected candidates.

And they will participate in the public policy process through grassroots activity, such as writing letters, making phone calls, and visiting with their elected officials. The most influential groups are politically active and usually involved in the legislative arena. But sometimes their activities progress to the executive and judicial branches of government as well.

There are varied special interests that participate in the legislative process. Discerning which ones are more or less influential is often made clear by their activities inside and outside the State Capitol. In other words, a powerful special interest is one that achieves success inside the Capitol with its ability to pass or defeat legislation important to its membership, as well as success in helping to elect or defeat candidates for office.

The most powerful groups often are listed high on the annual rankings posted by the Secretary of State on those spending the most on lobbying activities. Several groups consistently rank among the largest spenders on lobbying such as the Western States Petroleum Association, California Teachers Association, California Chamber of Commerce, and California Labor Federation. Their influence on the legislative process is often highlighted by the news media when discussing public policy measures being debated by the Legislature.

In terms of the California Legislature, special interests lobby as organizations and employ lobbyists. They also utilize grassroots support and even “grasstops” activities. These interest

groups take the form of trade associations, individual businesses, labor unions, nonprofit organizations, and even government entities. This article briefly describes some of the key ways that interest groups (including other government agencies) attempt to influence the legislature and state agencies.

In order to influence policy making in the legislative arena, interest groups obviously lobby legislators, their personal staff, committee staff, and ultimately the Governor’s Office in support of or opposition to proposed legislation. They lobby both in person and by written communications, including letters, emails, faxes, and different forms of social media. Facebook and Twitter have become popular forums for discussions about major public policy issues.

A myriad of interest groups employ lobbyists: corporations; non-profits; and, the public sector (which is one of the largest spenders of lobbying dollars). There is a trade association for everyone, even one for lobbyists IGA – the Institute of Governmental Advocates. There are over 1,200 registered lobbyists, over 400 lobbying firms, and nearly 3,000 lobbyist employers. They spend tens of millions of dollars every year on lobbying measures before the legislative and executive branches of state government.

Lobbying the Legislature often involves several different approaches, such as grassroots, using local elected officials to advocate, and utilizing public opinion. Public opinion could involve the use of “earned” or “paid” media. Some interest groups nearly always include a media component to their lobbying efforts by sending press releases, holding press conferences, and pitching favorable stories to the news media.

Members of interest groups try to establish relationships with individual legislators, committee staff, and legislative staff. On some occasions, special interests work with groups that share their perspective and build coalitions of other groups who will lobby the Legislature with a united voice.

Interest groups can and often do utilize the legislative arena to influence public policy debates. Interest groups sometimes work with individual legislators or legislative leaders to get them to hold special committee hearings, launch an investigation by the State Auditor or Legislative Analyst, or even introduce specific legislation sponsored by those groups.

Another approach is attempting to influence the news media, the profile of an issue could be increased and one or more legislators could introduce a bill on that topic. This is often referred to as “legislating by news story.” Legislators want to be responsive to constituents and their concerns, and those are often shaped by what they hear and read in the news media. As such, the media often help determine which issues that legislators focus on based upon their news reporting and editorials.

Similarly, in terms of executive branch policy making, interest groups can instigate media attention and positive or negative press regarding an agency’s rulemaking. Sometimes unwanted media attention causes a state agency to act quickly to resolve a public issue or to give up on trying to make a change that would be publicly or politically unpopular.

In order to influence policy making in the regulatory arena, interest groups lobby state agencies by utilizing the extensive opportunities to participate in the rulemaking activities of state agencies. The Administrative Procedure Act (APA) affords opportunities to be apprised of regulatory activities well in advance, to review and comment on proposed regulations, to provide testimony at hearings, and to challenge regulations after they have been formally adopted. In addition, any interested party can petition a state agency with a proposal to amend, adopt or repeal an existing regulation.

Most interest groups go beyond simple participation in the regulatory processes. Similar to lobbying the Legislature, they cultivate relationships with individual board members as well as agency heads and executive staff. They work behind the scenes to build coalitions of other interest groups who will lobby the state boards and their executives on a united front. In addition, it is not uncommon for interest groups to work with the Governor to have their own candidates (or other sympathetic individuals) appointed to a state board or commission.

Interest groups can also resort to working with the Governor as a means of pressuring state agencies. If the Governor is persuaded, his/her direction to line authority agencies is very powerful in the rulemaking setting.

The ballot box is also a popular place for influencing public policy in this state by special interests. Even the threat of an initiative or referendum to challenge an enacted law may be enough to successfully lobby the legislature. Amazon used the threat of a referendum to influence the language of a bill that California enacted in 2012 to require sales tax be collected from consumers with certain purchases of goods over the Internet. Opponents of 2014 legislation to ban the use of plastic bags in grocery stores is now subject to a November 2016 referendum vote by the state’s electorate.

The final avenue for interest groups to utilize is the third branch of government – take the matter to court. As the saying goes, “If all else fails, litigate.” Although this approach can be costly and time-consuming, in rare instances challenging an enacted bill or regulation may be the only chance left for an interest group to get its way. Similarly, with an agency’s regulations tied up in court, interest groups can create additional pressure for compromise.

All of these actions are ones that interest groups take when lobbying the legislative and executive branches of state government. Some may be more beneficial to different groups and at different times. There really is not a “cookie cutter” approach to special interest lobbying activities, but many of them have similar activities.

Chris Micheli is a lobbyist with Aprea & Micheli, Inc. Tom Nussbaum is the former Chancellor of the California Community Colleges. Both are Adjunct Professors of Law at McGeorge School of Law where they teach Introduction to Capital Lawyering.


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