California's 1,000 registered lobbyists are so influential they're known as the "The Third House." Many work from gleaming office towers that overshadow the state Capitol dome, making it look like just so much cheese for the snatching.
Yet the price of such unmatched access is barely a bar tab -- just $25 in lobbying registration fees a year -- when some states charge up to $1,000.
Now, a Bay Area lawmaker is arguing that needs to change. State Sen. Leland Yee is proposing to double fees that now amount to just 7 cents a day -- and until last year were only half that. "It's one of the hidden secrets of lobbying," Yee said.
The San Francisco Democrat is seizing an opportune moment to propose his legislation next month. Cal-Access -- the website that reveals the money behind politics, including campaign contributions and lobbying trails -- has been on the blink for weeks. And Yee wants lobbyists to help fix it by raising fees for only the second time since 1974.
Backed by the government watchdog group Common Cause, Yee's bill would increase lobbying fees to $100 each two-year legislative session -- up from the current $50. The funds would add $50,000 to maintain California's political database.
It's too early to tell whether the Third House will use its political heft to beat back the bill. Although the Secretary of State raised fees -- from $12.50 to $25 a year -- in the last legislative session, lobbyists successfully stymied another proposal for a more dramatic hike in 2010. A ballot initiative that year would have charged lobbying firms an annual $350 to pay for publicly financed elections for the Secretary of State post.
In an email, the president of the Institute of Governmental Advocates, Christina Dillon DiCaro, said her lobbying group for the lobbyists is so far reserving judgment, until the bill is formally introduced next year. But she did note: "While we fully support public access to campaign finance and lobbying reports, to ask the lobbying community alone to fund upgrades to the system is not the solution, as there are many other affected parties who benefit from the use of Cal-Access."
The current site, designed in 1999 in the state that is home to the most modern tech wizardry, has been mostly dysfunctional since Nov. 30. The California Automated Lobbying and Campaign Contribution and Expenditure Search System is the apparent victim of a disk array controller suffering from a "physical memory failure," state officials report.
Citizen watchdog groups are irate. But lobbyists, too, are lamenting the downed site. They use the information to devise strategy and advise clients on who's throwing money where. And in early discussions with Yee's office, they have not been wholly opposed to contributing more to the site's upkeep -- amounts that are little more than pocket change for those working at the multimillion-dollar firms.
"We've talked to a number of lobbyists, and they also agree it's high time to increase it," Yee said. "Given the problems with Cal-Access, they'll be fine with the bill."
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, states from Alabama to Alaska charge $100 a year, compared with California's $25. Despite the influence peddling long endemic in Illinois, lobbyists there pay $300 a year and as much as $1,000 annually in Massachusetts.
Ray LeBov, a California registered lobbyist since 1992 who trains other lobbyists, said his initial reaction to Yee's bill proposal is that "it seems reasonable."
LeBov and other lobbyists opposed the last attempt to raise lobbying fees, arguing that the profession was being singled out for disproportionate increases. But "in this instance," LeBov said, "you have an outdated system of vital public importance, and this would help ensure raising the necessary funding to make it functional."
Contact Karen de Sá at 408-920-5781.