There are a lot of reasons why legislation lives or dies at the state Capitol, but one powerful reason may be whether it’s been championed — or in some cases completely written — by influential interest groups.
These are pieces of legislation known as “sponsored bills,” a designation that at its most basic level points out the impetus for the proposal came from an outside group. But beyond that, it’s the Sacramento equivalent of a Rorschach test — a designation that means something different to everyone and almost impossible to universally define.
In some cases, lobbyists and interest groups simply suggest an idea to a member of the Assembly or Senate; in others, they completely write the bill’s language and work behind the scenes on everything from managing media strategy to having the final say in whether their bill can be amended.
And it pays off. Using electronic records that are public but in bulk form, KQED News analyzed data on each of the 4,800 bills introduced in the 2013-2014 legislative session. Compared with regular bills, the success and failure rate of sponsored bills is striking.
Most Sponsored Bills Become Law
In the most recent two-year-session, 67 percent of the bills in the California Legislature with a listed sponsor were chaptered into California law; the overall success rate for bills was just 43 percent.
Those odds seem to have improved in recent years: A 2010 analysis by the San Jose Mercury News found that 60 percent of sponsored bills in the 2007-2008 session became law.
The contrast is even more noticeable when it comes to the rate of rejection. Just 28 percent of sponsored bills were defeated in the Legislature in 2013-2014, while the overall failure rate for legislation was 50 percent — almost twice as high as for sponsored bills.
(The numbers don’t add up to 100 percent because a fraction of bills simply fizzle out, and are counted as inactive. But factor in those stalled proposals, and the relative strength of sponsored bills seems even higher.)
Insiders say the success rate is so high because influential sponsors rarely leave much, if anything, to chance.
“You need the right politics,” said Shaudi Falamaki Fulp, a former legislative lobbyist who now works as political and public affairs strategist. “That means having the right coalition of support, the right messaging, and the right legislator” to carry the bill.
Even so, sponsors seem to focus their efforts — or at least voluntarily reveal those efforts — more in the Assembly, home to more rookie legislators than the Senate. Of the 712 bills identified as sponsored in 2013-2014, 464 of them originated in the lower house.
Who Carries Sponsored Bills … And Why?
Just how many sponsored bills exist is almost impossible to say with any certainty. The designation, briefly mentioned in the analysis of a bill that’s prepared by legislative staff, is completely voluntary. And everyone interviewed for this story agreed that the phenomenon is undercounted by what’s made public.
“Nobody wants to say that somebody outside [of the Legislature] wrote the bill,” said Roger Dickinson, a former Democratic assemblyman from Sacramento. He carried seven sponsored bills in 2013-2014, records show.
And he had a lot of company. In fact, the KQED News analysis found 116 legislators — all but just four — carried at least one sponsored bill. Twenty legislators carried 10 or more sponsored bills.
The two who carried the most: Assemblyman Don Wagner (R-Irvine) and Assemblyman Ed Chau (D-Arcadia). Wagner carried 16 bills sponsored by outside groups; Chau carried 14 sponsored bills. And they say they have no problem with the practice.
“I try not to come up here and pretend that I know everything,” said Wagner in an interview.
The chief of staff to Chau said in an email that bill sponsors are groups that “share similar priorities” with the legislator.
Could There Be More Disclosure?
Observers of the legislative process say it’s not the existence of sponsored bills that’s a concern — but rather the lack of disclosure.
“Whenever people try to influence elected officials, I think it is better for the public to know,” said Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who specializes in governance ethics. “When bills are sponsored, the key is to give the public as much information as possible.”
The problem, say Capitol staff and lobbyists who didn’t want to be identified on an issue affecting their employers or clients, is that the perception is almost always negative.
But even the legislator who carried more sponsored bills than anyone in 2013-2014 says the system should change.
“I am all for more transparency,” said Wagner. “I think there’s way too little of it up here.”
KQED News examined 20,214 bill analyses from the 2013-2014 legislative session, records provided by the Legislative Counsel of California. We converted the files to text and used a program called Overview and MySQL to search for variations of the phrase “sponsored by” in the documents. We attempted to exclude records that include the phrases “author sponsored” or “sponsored by author,” both of which would indicate that a legislator and not an interest group or lobbyist wrote the bill.