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Warren Alford talks about natural forrest vegetation like and harvesting wood while still maintaining the integrity of the forrest, on his families land in the Calaveras County Mountains Tuesday November 16, 2010. (Maria J. Avila Lopez/Mercury News)

By most measures, California's Legislature performed dismally this past session. It passed a budget a record 100 days late, and grossly underestimated the fiscal crisis -- a situation so severe that lawmakers returned to the Capitol earlier this month for a special session to grapple with a $6.1 billion deficit.

But the dire situation did not inhibit legislators from carrying bills crafted by outside interests who showered them with campaign contributions, a continuing Mercury News investigation of the California legislative process shows. While larger problems festered, lawmakers in the two-year session just ended pushed lobbyist-driven "sponsored bills" -- bills that are not simply backed by interest groups but often actually written by them -- at the same furious pace of the previous session.

Sponsored bills accounted for almost 40 percent of all legislation introduced and 50 percent of bills that became law. And in the recession-stained session of 2009 and 2010, these bills took on a particular character: In the name of creating jobs, lawmakers embraced special-interest legislation that would upend environmental protections, block lawsuits, allow corporations to reduce fees and accountability, and increase consumer costs.

"We've created a government that doesn't focus on the big, pressing needs of Californians and instead focuses on the narrow needs of private interests," said Derek Cressman, regional director of the political watchdog group Common Cause. Responding to the Mercury News investigation, which began in July with publication of an analysis of all bills in the 2007-08 session, he said: "The problem is so entrenched that even in-depth exposés and record-low public approval ratings haven't created different behavior."

The paper's investigation -- the first-ever detailed analysis of sponsored bills -- now encompasses two full sessions and more than 9,000 pieces of legislation, establishing a pattern, not merely a single-session aberration. It shows that outside interests dominate Sacramento to an extent almost unimaginable outside the state's capital, but well-accepted within it:

  • Crisis or not, there is plenty of time for sponsored bills. Members of the Assembly and Senate introduced 1,596 bills -- 37 percent of the total for the 2009-10 session -- on behalf of outside interests including employee groups, government agencies and nonprofits; of those, 455 bills were sponsored by private industry and corporations. The percentage was down only slightly from the number of sponsored bills introduced in the previous session, when California's crisis was far less severe.

  • Legislators greatly preferred sponsored bills to those they crafted themselves. In examining the 2009-10 session, the newspaper looked not only at the number of bills that become law, as it did for the previous session, but also at the number that passed both houses of the Legislature, regardless of whether they eventually were vetoed. The results were stunning: While just 30 percent of nonsponsored bills passed both houses and were sent to the governor, sponsored bills passed both houses 69 percent of the time.

  • In another new finding, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has often decried special-interest influence, did little to deter sponsored bills. The governor signed sponsored bills at roughly the same rate as nonsponsored bills. In the end, slightly more than half of sponsored bills became law, but about one in five of nonsponsored bills succeeded.

  • Though virtually all lawmakers introduce sponsored bills, a handful stood out for their frequent support of private-interest sponsors. In the Assembly, six legislators introduced more than 10 bills sponsored by companies, industries or trade associations, including three -- Felipe Fuentes, an Arleta Democrat; Ed Hernandez, a West Covina Democrat; and Bill Emmerson, a Rancho Cucamonga Republican -- who had reached a similarly lofty peak in the 2007-08 session.

    In the Senate, two senators, Democrat Ron Calderon of Montebello and Gloria Negrete McLeod of Montclair, introduced 10 private-interest bills last session, and three other senators introduced seven or more. Of those five, four -- Calderon, Leland Yee, of San Francisco, Lou Correa of Santa Ana and McLeod -- were among the leaders in the 2007-08 session as well. Those numbers could be understated: Sponsors are identified in the individual analysis of bills by legislative committee staff, and some committees are more diligent than others in those identifications.

    As was true in the earlier session, money from sponsors flowed to legislators who introduced their bills. The legislators who introduced the most private-interest-sponsored legislation -- Assembly members who introduced 10 or more bills, senators who introduced seven or more -- received, on average, more than $20,000 from private interest-sponsors whose bills they carried.

    At the other extreme, just two members in the 120-seat Legislature did not introduce a single sponsored bill in the session: Republican Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, of Orange County, and Mike Gatto, a Burbank Democrat. Gatto joined the Assembly after a special election in June, missing the regular deadline for introducing bills. DeVore, on the other hand, was too busy campaigning for a U.S. Senate seat. Whereas the average Assembly member introduced 32 bills in the session, DeVore introduced only three -- an acknowledgement, he said, of the demands of 360 campaign events that made it impossible for him to be present for hearings that the authors of bills are expected to attend.

    But DeVore also said his limited-government philosophy has made him increasingly resistant to carrying bills on behalf of sponsors. "I grew more wary in my last couple of years in the Legislature about these sponsored bills, asking myself: Why do we have a full-time Legislature if the members aren't actually crafting their own legislation?" he said.

    Sponsorship has become so common that when the bills carry no sponsor, committee members notice. In previous years, prior to his unsuccessful U.S. Senate quest, DeVore introduced 35 or more bills each session -- most with no sponsor attached. When he would bring his bills to colleagues in committee hearings, unaccompanied by a lobbyist, he recalled in a recent interview: "It was almost like, 'What the heck are you doing here?' "

    California's shadow Legislature

    The Mercury News articles on sponsored bills in July generated an outpouring of response. Many in the Capitol agreed, as the series found, that lobbyists have gained tremendous power at the expense of legislators. Lobbyists now hold vastly more experience, job security and expertise than elected leaders who arrive in the Capitol facing the ticking term-limit clock, which requires them to produce results quickly while maintaining constant fundraising efforts for the looming election cycle.

    Democratic Assemblyman Mike Feuer, of West Hollywood, and Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, of Concord, are pushing changes to cut the number of bills each legislator can introduce from the current 40 to 30 or fewer, a move they said would permit greater scrutiny of bills. But this month, legislators delayed such a change pending further talks.

    The Mercury News analysis raises doubts about whether merely cutting the number of bills affects sponsored bills the way legislative reformers hope. In 2009-10, the number of bills introduced dropped from 4,865 to 4,294. But the percentage of sponsored bills remained almost the same, dropping from 39 percent to 37 percent, and sponsored bills continued to win passage at a far higher rate than bills that are not designated as sponsored.

    Although most current and former legislators acknowledge the influence of lobbyists, many insist that any abuses involved other members, not themselves.

    "I'm the captain of my ship," said Charles Calderon, one of the Assembly members who for four years has been among the most regular authors of private-interest-sponsored bills. While other legislators may let outside lobbyists write speeches for them, or even take over the questions at legislative hearings, Calderon, a Democrat from the City of Industry, said that was not his practice: "Once I take on a bill, it's my bill."

    Some Sacramento veterans contend that the public is protected from undue influence by checks within the system. After all, while lobbyists may write initial versions of bills, proposed legislation goes to the Office of Legislative Counsel to be formally "drafted." And sponsors are barred from talking to Legislative Counsel staff, absent a waiver from the legislator introducing the bill.

    But those protections turned out not to be the safeguard that critics envision.

    Waivers are freely granted, and legislative counsel staff tell of many instances in which lobbyists, with legislators' approval, negotiated language directly, leaving legislators and their staff out of the give-and-take.

    Some lobbyists draft legislation for their clients so precisely that the Legislative Counsel's office finds little reason to change the proposed bills.

    "I've been lobbying for 30 years and virtually all the bills I draft -- they go to Legislative Counsel and they come out virtually exactly the way we sent them in," said lobbyist Carl Brakensiek.

    One example was a bill that would have created a NASCAR-themed license plate. The bill would have permitted a portion of the revenue from the sales of the plates to go to a charity of NASCAR's choice -- or even to NASCAR drivers whose names would appear on the plates -- rather than into a state fund, as existing law provides. Brakensiek provided the newspaper a draft of what he turned over to legislative staff, which mirrored the amended version of the bill as carried by Emmerson. The bill ultimately failed.

    As would be expected from such a process, legislators sometimes find themselves surprised by provisions in bills that carry their names.

    Assembly Speaker John Pérez, D-Los Angeles, introduced a bill on behalf of the Enterprise car rental agency this term that would have raised fees for damage waivers. Pérez's spokesman, John Vigna, said the legislation was only a placeholder. But whatever his intention, when Pérez examined the legislation, he realized that "the bill didn't satisfy his concerns for consumer protection," Vigna said. Pérez struck four of the five provisions of his own bill before dropping it altogether.

    Public interest or private?

    While many sponsored bills pass the Legislature, the Enterprise bill was one of many that did not -- and that probably never had a chance of passing. Even these failed bills are a problem because their large numbers distract time and attention from the public good.

    A huge number of bills fall into that camp. In the 2009-10 session, the Mercury News review found, 180 sponsored bills never passed out of either house -- and 73 died after only one hearing.

    Many of these bills are a "waste of time and a drain," said Angie Wei, the lobbyist for the California Labor Federation, which successfully fought off proposals to reduce overtime guarantees and loosen worker protections.

    Consider a bill sponsored by the debt-settlement industry to let companies charge hefty advance fees to near-bankrupt clients, regardless of whether their efforts to settle debts succeed. It prompted a warning from legislative staff that it opened the door to greatly increased fees on consumers. The bill died, but only after extensive wrangling from March 2009 to June 2010, with eight committee hearings and dozens of meetings of interested parties, some lasting up to six hours.

    Gail Hillebrand of the Consumers Union, a leading opponent of the bill, said the measure cost her about 200 hours over six months.

    Similar efforts went into a bill sponsored by Smart Plate, a San Francisco startup, seeking to develop digital electronic ads that would appear on license plates when cars stopped. It was killed after legislative staff and state law enforcement worried that it would allow suspects to flee crime scenes undetected. Five committee hearings were held over five months on the bill. And California Highway Patrol Capt. Avery Brown said representatives of his agency met with Smart Plate staff every other week for more than a year to discuss the bill.

    Among the session's more contentious bills was one sponsored by mobile-home park owners that would have permitted them to double the fees they charge to new mobile home owners in rent-controlled parks. That bill died after legislative staff and advocates for the poor and the elderly sounded alarms.

    Legislative staffers said this bill required an enormous investment of time, with extensive research, reams of correspondence and numerous meetings with the lobbyists for the bill's named sponsor, the park owners group. Charles Calderon introduced the bill and received more than $12,000 from the association of park owners as well as individual members. Calderon in an interview called a "misnomer" the designation that the park owners sponsored the bill, and said the bill had been his own creation. A committee staff member said the practice is to provide a form that legislators' staff complete, identifying any sponsors.

    Clearly, the sponsors stand to benefit if bills they seek become legislation.

    But who benefits when bills fail?

    For one, lobbyists, who are paid for masterminding and working the bills. Wei, the labor lobbyist, said too many companies are simply "paying lobbyists to fail." Those payments support a big business: In Sacramento, there are 1,225 registered lobbyists and 120 legislators -- a ratio of 10 lobbyists for every legislator.

    The legislators, who win friends and campaign contributions even if bills do not succeed, also benefit. The Mercury News review found repeated donations to legislators from sponsors of unsuccessful bills; in the cases of Fuentes, Ron Calderon and Democratic Assemblywoman Mary Hayashi of Hayward, each of them listed more than $10,000 in contributions from sponsors of failed legislation in the most recent session.

    Governor signs sponsored bills often

    The governor's signature on special-interest legislation is not uncommon; the Mercury News examination found that Schwarzenegger signed sponsored bills that got to his desk in about the same proportion as all other bills.

    More than half of the sponsored bills that were introduced the most recent session became law, compared with 21 percent of nonsponsored bills, the review found. But that discrepancy reflected the Legislature's preference for sponsored bills -- 69 percent of all sponsored bills made their way to Schwarzenegger's desk in the 2009-10 session, but only 30 percent of all bills without sponsors.

    Once the governor considered them, he signed 73 percent of sponsored bills and 72 percent of nonsponsored bills, the newspaper found.

    Schwarzenegger's veto messages, which explain why he rejects particular bills, showed he is willing at times to stand up to outside interests. When the Legislature early in this session passed a bill that would have eliminated the public health department's authority over laboratories -- some private, some public -- that conduct forensic alcohol tests, the veto message called the measure an inappropriate move to take "regulatory oversight from a state department to a private entity."

    Aaron McLear, the governor's spokesman, said Schwarzenegger "weighs each bill on its merits and acts accordingly," reviewing the legislation at times in multiple briefings. McLear would not say whether the governor's decisions are influenced by who sponsors a bill, but noted: "He knows who supports it and who opposed it."

    Neither the governor nor his spokesman would speak more directly on the Mercury News findings regarding sponsored bills. "How the Legislature behaves is up to them," McLear said.

    Ease regulations, save jobs

    While many outside observers say sponsored bills drained time that the legislators should have spent grappling with California's economic crisis in 2009-10, inside the Capitol the message was sharply different. Clever lobbyists pitched their sponsored bills as job creators; as a result, legislation to ease regulations, or to offer special benefits to businesses, seemed to have significantly more leverage.

    One example: The timber industry won passage of two long-sought bills to ease environmental regulations it contended were onerous and could cost jobs.

    The regulations in question required the industry to report on the environmental impact of its deforestation of private lands every three years. Those reports are the only basis that state agencies have to document environmental hazards that could lead to logging operations shutting down. Assemblyman Tony Mendoza, D-Norwalk, carried both bills sponsored by the California Forestry Association, which stretched the time between such reports to seven years.

    "Making it more costly to do business in the forest puts pressure on jobs," said Bob Mion, spokesman for the association. By easing the regulation, he said, the bill saved rural jobs at a time of high unemployment.

    Mendoza, whose campaigns received more than $8,000 in donations from the association and its members between 2007 and 2009, said in an interview that he would "not have carried any legislation that would have been harmful to the environment." Mendoza said he became convinced of the merits of the bill after the industry arranged for tours that left him confident that loggers were "doing the right thing by the ecosystem."

    Legislative analysts said there were concerns that even under existing law the industry was not properly protecting streams, habitats and endangered species. The timber industry lobbyists "ran us over," said Sierra Club lobbyist Michael Endicott. "This has been on the timber industry wish list for years -- and they were using the economy as an argument," he said.

    The laws passed both chambers, were signed by the governor, and took effect in September over the objections of legislators including Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco. In an interview, Ammiano said an industry lobbyist offered him a stay in a woodsy inn if he would reconsider his opposition. It was, he added, "a little aggressive, even for Sacramento."