Political Notebook

For a price, lobbyists keep Sacramento watch for Valley organizations

Visalia Mayor Steve Nelsen
Visalia Mayor Steve Nelsen Special to The Bee

Sacramento is swarming with lobbyists, and central San Joaquin Valley governments, trade groups and others are paying for their services. Sometimes a lot.

Valley organizations have paid more than $400,000 in lobbying fees just in 2015, according to data on the Secretary of State’s website.

In the case of California Citrus Mutual, the tab so far this year is more than $21,000.

It’s money well spent, said Joel Nelsen, president of the Exeter-based citrus growers lobby. Case in point: These past few years, and headed to next year, Nelsen said, legislators serving under the old California term-limit rules have been reaching the end of their time in office.

The old rule was six years maximum in the state Assembly and eight years in the state Senate. Under the new rules, a legislator can serve 12 years in either body. That means agriculture organizations such as California Citrus Mutual might have to deal with a new Assembly member for six two-year terms. That’s twice as long as the old rules. Because of that, Citrus Mutual thinks it is critical to elect moderate candidates.

“We have to identify whether we can get moderate individuals who are ag oriented and willing to advocate on our behalf,” Nelsen said.

The charge given to Kahn, Soares and Conway, a Sacramento lobbying firm, was to identify those politicians. If it works as intended, the firm will do its homework and report back to Citrus Mutual, which then then makes political donations to its preferred candidates.

That’s not to say its the lobbying firm’s only task, but for now it is the most important, Nelsen said.

Visalia has paid $40,000, one of the highest amounts in the area, for its lobbyist, Nielsen Merksamer Parrinello Gross & Leon. There’s no special legislation or issue for the city, just a set of eyes and ears in Sacramento, Visalia Mayor Steve Nelsen said. The city also employes a federal lobbyist in Washington, D.C.

“You never know what’s going on,” Nelsen said. “We feel that we need to have someone who’s got our back. Our staff does a tremendous job, but they’re not in Sacramento.”

Some others with Sacramento lobbyists on retainer and how much they’ve paid so far this year : Dinuba, $15,000; Fowler, $7,500; Tulare, $15,720; Clovis Unified, around $24,000 to two different firms; Fresno Unified, more than $33,000 to three different firms; the Friant Water Users Authority, $66,325, tops in the area; Kings County, $16,915; and Fresno County, $44,000.

Not everyone has a lobbyist. Clovis, for instance, doesn’t, and it has more than 100,000 people.

Fresno doesn’t, either, but Georgeanne White, chief of staff to Mayor Ashley Swearengin, said that has to change.

“We cut it during the recession because we just couldn’t afford it,” White said. “We were laying off staff and cutting back on everything. As we are starting to add back services, I think that is definitely an area we need to be adding back in.”

White said there’s a lot going on in Sacramento, and the city needs a lobbyist to keep tabs on it.