Lobbyist Gifts and Reporting
Restricting Lobbyist Gifts and Campaign Contributions
Imposes new regulations on lobbyist reporting, restricts lobbyist gifts to city officials and limits lobbyist campaign contributions.
What the Measure Would Do
Proposition T would amend the Campaign and Governmental Conduct Code to create stricter registration requirements for lobbyists and restrict gifts and campaign contributions from lobbyists to city officials.
First, this measure would require lobbyists to identify which city agencies they influence or intend to influence and would require them to update their registration information and disclosures within five days of any changed circumstances.
Second, Prop. T would prohibit lobbyists from making any gift of any value to a city official — including gifts to underwrite travel expenses — and would prohibit city officers from accepting or soliciting such gifts. The measure would further clarify that a lobbyist could not give gifts to a city official through a third party. 501(c)(3) nonprofit organizations that also engage in lobbying activities would be exempt from this restriction in the case of public events they host, allowing such organizations to provide gifts of food or refreshments valued at $25 or less to city officials as long as such gifts were offered to all attendees of the event.
Third, the measure would prohibit lobbyists from making any contribution to city elected officials or candidates, as well as from gathering contributions from others (known as “bundling”). This prohibition would apply to lobbyists who are currently registered to lobby the official’s agency and to those who had been registered within 90 days of the date of the contribution. This restriction would also apply to contributions to candidate-controlled committees and candidate-controlled ballot measure committees. (These are committees created to raise and spend money on behalf of a candidate or ballot measure; they are legally controlled by a candidate for office.) Committees that support or oppose candidates for state elected office or state ballot measures would be exempted from this restriction, although state law already prohibits lobbyists from making contributions to officeholders or candidates of the agencies they lobby.
The measure would permit the Ethics Commission and the Board of Supervisors to amend these provisions by a four-fifths vote of the commission and a two-thirds vote of the Board of Supervisors.
San Francisco’s existing Lobbyist Ordinance regulates the activities of lobbyists and requires that they register with the Ethics Commission and file monthly disclosures regarding their activities. These disclosures include descriptions of payments from lobbyists’ clients or employers, the identity of city officers the lobbyists have attempted to influence, and campaign contributions that they or their employers or clients have made or delivered. Under current law, lobbyists do not need to identify which city agencies they intend to influence when they register.
The current Lobbyist Ordinance limits lobbyist gifts to a city officer to items or meals worth $25 or less. Current law also stipulates that local candidates may accept up to $500 per person in campaign contributions, but it does not establish a contribution limit specific to lobbyists. Nor does current law restrict anyone from collecting campaign contributions from others and delivering those contributions to city candidates and elected officials.
The Ethics Commission was first established in 1993 and is charged with enforcing the city’s governmental ethics laws, creating and advising on ethical guidelines for city officials, and acting as filing officer for financial disclosure statements related to city officials, campaigns, lobbyists, permit consultants and major developers. Since its creation, several ballot measures have extended the Ethics Commission’s purview. Most recently, Prop. C in 2015 created a new category of expenditure lobbyists, imposing registration and reporting requirements on groups and individuals that spend more than $2,500 in a month on “grassroots” lobbying efforts that urge others to contact city officials.
Prop. T has been put forth as an attempt to curtail “pay-to-play” politics and better align with state law, which restricts state lobbyists from making gifts or political contributions to state candidates.
The Ethics Commission voted to place this measure on the ballot. It requires a simple majority (50 percent plus one vote) to pass.
This measure addresses a potential correlation between contributions or gifts offered to public officials and influence over those officials. Barring those who are seeking to influence public officials from making gifts, contributions of bundling others’ contributions to those officials could be a step toward getting money out of local politics.
The additional reporting requirements of Prop. T could provide more public transparency in the relationships between influencers and public officials.
The policy argument hasn’t been made that this measure will actually prevent corruption. It’s hard to see, for example, how eliminating the current ability of a lobbyist to make one gift per year of no more than $25 would prevent corruption. To avoid extremes, the measure’s advocates could have stuck to consistency with state law. But this measure, unlike state policy, would not exempt gifts of minimal value. Under the proposed law, a lobbyist could not offer a bottle of water to a city employee.
There are benefits to elected officials being involved in the activities of nonprofits, hearing from community groups and advocates, and being informed by the latest research from independent experts. An overly vigilant culture that prohibits or stigmatizes many interactions between elected officials and their constituents could damage the government’s responsiveness to citizens’ needs.
The requirement to continuously update all lobbying reports within five days of “changed circumstances” (which is not defined) could be a trap for the unwary, such as nonprofits and other entities that only occasionally lobby. Prop. T would allow the Ethics Commission to impose significant fines for minor infractions.
This measure does not have to be on the ballot. It could have been directed to the Board of Supervisors, where its impact could have been considered through the regular legislative process.
SPUR recognizes the concern Prop. T raises about the effect of money in San Francisco politics. We are generally supportive of a ban on bundling campaign contributions and appreciate the proponents’ work to develop a proposal for San Francisco.
But regarding the strict gift ban, we have not heard a convincing policy argument that this measure would actually prevent corruption. This measure may only address a perception of influence, and its methods might have unanticipated impacts. One is that Prop. T could make it harder for city officials and legitimate representatives of public interests to work together. There is a balance to strike between preventing corruption and seeing the potential for corruption in any contact between a city official and an advocate for a cause.
This measure makes an important contribution to the conversation about money in politics, but it should have been considered legislatively, where trade-offs could have been weighed and where it would have been possible to amend with a simple Board of Supervisors majority, like nearly all other laws.