WASHINGTON -- Skeptics question whether the California High-Speed Rail Authority can lobby the federal government with public funds. The answer is: yes and no.
It all depends on what pocket the money is coming from. Federal dollars, certainly not. State dollars, a qualified yes.
With so much political debate surrounding the high-speed rail project, it's probably inevitable that the authority's lobbying efforts would become an inviting target.
Following a McClatchy report that the high-speed rail authority is paying registered Washington lobbyists, state Sen. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale (Butte County), declared that he had "launched an investigation" into whether lobbying restrictions were being violated.
LaMalfa termed the publicly funded lobbying "outrageous" and "inappropriate, at the very least."
On Capitol Hill, too, high-speed rail critics have wondered behind the scenes whether the lobbying contracts with the GOP-connected Ogilvy Government Relations and the Democratic-connected Kadesh & Associates were proper uses of public funds.
The California High-Speed Rail Authority paid Ogilvy Government Relations $30,000 and Kadesh $10,000 in the first three months of 2011, lobbying records show.
"Having representation in D.C. is typical," California High-Speed Rail Authority spokesman Jeffrey Barker said this week. "In fact, it would be irresponsible of us not to have representation in D.C., as the federal government is our funding partner and members of Congress deserve and demand frequent project status updates."
Barker said the lobbying is being paid for from the $9 billion high-speed rail bond approved by voters in November 2008. He said the state has sold $300 million worth of bonds and that's what has financed all of the efforts of the authority since mid-2009.
Tom Dresslar, spokesman for California Treasurer Bill Lockyer, said the guide on how bond money can be spent is the language of the bond measure itself.
The terms "lobbying" or "influence" do not appear anywhere within the 5,100-word text of the high-speed rail measure, known as Proposition 1A.
The absence of an explicit restriction amounts to an implicit green light, at least so far as the state dollars go. Indeed, the bond measure even seems to encourage lobbying, with language that the rail authority "shall pursue and obtain" other funds, including from the federal government.
California's competitors are also hiring lobbyists.
The Western High Speed Rail Alliance, which aims to link Arizona, Colorado, Nevada and Utah, paid its chief lobbyist $120,000 last year, records show. The Texas High Speed Rail and Transportation Commission paid its lobbyists $40,000 last year, while Florida High Speed Rail in January hired lobbyists who formerly worked for Florida lawmakers.
To lobby legally, states must use the right dollars.
The federal government has provided about $3.5 billion to the California High-Speed Rail Authority. The money will help the state start the initial route, connecting Bakersfield to near Chowchilla.
A statute that dates to the late 1980s and is commonly called the Byrd Amendment, though, prohibits federal grant recipients from using federal dollars for lobbying Congress or executive branch agencies for more money. Other regulations further limit the use of federal dollars for lobbying.
"Every senator in this body ought to be repulsed by the perception that we will dole out the bucks if stroked by the right consultant," the late Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia declared during July 1989 debate over his lobbying provision.
So far, California has provided the remainder of the California High-Speed Rail Authority's budget. The only applicable limit spelled out in the bond measure is a restriction against using more than 2.5% of the funds for "administrative purposes," which are not otherwise defined.
Because California's high-speed rail bonds are taxable, rather than tax-exempt, the rail authority is not bound by certain other Internal Revenue Service restrictions that might otherwise apply.