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Find out which lobbying groups get their way most often in the California Legislature


Find out which lobbying groups get their way most often in the California Legislature

Jun 12, 2024 | 8:30 am ET
By Ryan Sabalow
Fast food workers and Service Employee International Union members march in 2022 to the Capitol to deliver postcards and petitions in support of legislation. Unions tend to get their way in the California Legislature, according to a new CalMatters Digital Democracy analysis. Photo by Fred Greaves for CalMatters.
Progressive groups, labor and civil rights organizations do well, while anti-tax, business and police fare poorly, according to a CalMatters Digital Democracy analysis.
Fast-food workers and other SEIU members marched to the Capitol to deliver postcards and petitions in support of AB257 to the Governor's Office on May 31, 2022. Photo by Fred Greaves for CalMatters
Fast food workers and other SEIU members marched to the Capitol to deliver postcards and petitions in support of Assembly Bill 257 to the governor's office on May 31, 2022. Photo by Fred Greaves for CalMatters

In summary

Progressive groups, labor and civil rights organizations do well, while anti-tax, business and police fare poorly, according to a CalMatters Digital Democracy analysis.

Los Angeles and the Bay Area tend to get their way in the California Legislature. So do labor unions, social justice organizations and defense attorneys. On the flip side, anti-tax, police and business groups are much less successful. 

Those are the key findings from a data analysis of the organizations that have been most successful in passing their agendas during the current legislative session, according to CalMatters Digital Democracy project.

The analysis looked at every organization that took a position — either in testimony or in written comments — on at least 25 bills since January 2023, and whether those bills advanced or died in accordance with the group’s position.

The results reflect the priorities of a liberal Legislature where Democrats have held super majorities in both chambers since 2018, said Ken Cooley, a former moderate Democratic Assemblymember from Sacramento County. 

“To me, this does kind of reflect the ideological bent of the Legislature,” he said.

Unions feature prominently, accounting for five of the 25 most successful organizations. They got their way on bills at least two-thirds of the time.

Labor scored a string of major wins last year. They included new laws that increase the number of guaranteed sick days, raise the minimum wage for health care and fast food workers and allow legislative staff to unionize.

Unions have long held an outsized role in state politics in California. Former Assembly Speakers Fabian Núñez and John Pérez were former union officials, as was former Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León. Meanwhile, at least six members of the Legislature are former union officials or have close ties to labor groups. And in 2022, San Diego Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher resigned to take a job as head of the California Labor Federation. Her organization saw a 67% success rate on bills it supported or opposed in the 2023-24 session. 

At the same time, nearly all lower-ranking Democrats heavily court union endorsements — and their campaign cash. Unions have donated at least $22 million to sitting legislators’ campaigns since 2020.

But Chris Micheli, a veteran Capitol lobbyist and adjunct professor at McGeorge and UC Davis law schools, cautioned against reading too much into the unions’ campaign funds corresponding to votes on bills. He said Democrats would tend to support labor even without the cash.

“The fact that they’re also a major campaign contributor, I think it is not only secondary,” he said. “It’s way down the line because most (Democratic lawmakers) are inclined to be sympathetic.” 

Defense attorneys and social justice and civil liberties organizations also got their way more often than not. 

The civil rights law firm Public Advocates, ACLU California Action, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and the San Francisco Public Defender were among the 25 most successful groups. Meanwhile, the California Public Defenders Association (ranked 41st) and the ACLU were among the most prolific groups to take positions on bills. The ACLU took positions on 124 of them; the public defenders 126. 

The public defenders often joined the ACLU to fight — and usually succeeded in killing — a spate of tough-on-crime bills from moderate Democrats and Republicans last year, though many of those bills have since been revived as Democrats face growing political pressure to do more to address the perception crime is on the rise.

Cooley, the former Democratic lawmaker, said the recent success of progressive groups and unions could reflect a Legislature that in 2023 saw a huge influx of rookie Democratic lawmakers entering the Assembly and Senate.

At the start of the 2023-24 Legislative session, 34 of the 120 members were newly elected. Cooley said new members are more likely to support traditional ideological causes and allies.

“That would tend to pump the numbers up,” he said. “But now, they’re in an election cycle, and that may cause them to be a little more circumspect in their voting.” 

Bay Area, Los Angeles fare well

It’s often said that all politics is local, and that’s certainly reflected in the success rates of the groups in the Top 25. 

Nearly one-third of all legislators represent Los Angeles County. This may account for why the county, its district attorney, the Los Angeles Unified School District and county’s office of education were among the 25 most successful organizations. 

The District Attorney’s Office, headed by a progressive prosecutor, George Gascon, topped the list after seeing 31 of 35 bills go its way — a success rate of 89%. Its victories included a bill that prohibits criminal defendants in pre-trial mental health diversion programs from owning a firearm until they successfully complete the program; a bill that would allow undocumented immigrants who aid law enforcement to receive visas; and a bill that prohibits child abuse victims from being charged for evidentiary medical exams. However, Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed four bills the DA supported, including a pilot program that would pay jurors more and another that would have prohibited law enforcement agencies from selling outdated weapons.

Around two dozen lawmakers hail from the San Francisco Bay Area, which may account for why the San Francisco Public Defender, the Bay Area Council and County and City of San Francisco also had success rates that put them in the top 25. 

The Bay Area Council, a local business group, supported successful legislation that seeks to speed up construction for Accessory Dwelling Units, sometimes called “granny flats.”

The counties and cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles also supported legislation that imposes an 11% excise tax on guns and ammo to fund violence prevention programs. That law takes effect July 1.  

“To me, this does kind of reflect the ideological bent of the Legislature.”

Ken Cooley, former Democratic Assemblymember from Sacramento County

Thad Kousser, a political science professor from UC San Diego, said it’s not much of a surprise to see lawmakers siding with their local counties and cities on issues.

“It’s where a lot of legislators are, but there’s also intensive lobbying done” (by local governments), he said. “Some of the biggest lobbying groups in state legislatures are cities and counties.”

Perhaps surprisingly, the League of California Cities, one of the top lobbying spenders in California, fared less well than government-funded lobbyists from Los Angeles County and the Bay Area. The organization was ranked 71st on CalMatters’ list, with a 55% success rate on bills. This, despite spending $2.13 million last year on lobbying and $28.4 million over the last 18 years.

Bills that the league opposed but Newsom signed into law included legislation that allows temporary government employees to be counted in union bargaining units, and another bill that prohibits local governments from imposing burdensome restrictions on developers looking to convert existing buildings into affordable housing. 

Jason Rhine, the league’s director of legislative affairs, said his group’s success rate only tells part of the story. He said his organization also modifies some bills before they pass and discourages others before they are introduced. He also said it takes several attempts over years to pass some legislation.

“We’re certainly in it for the long game,” Rhine said.

A major win for Rhine’s organization was Newsom’s veto of a union-backed bill that would have stopped local governments from banning employees from striking in support of other strikes. 

Police, anti-tax and business groups fare poorly

Meanwhile, police, business and anti tax groups dominated the list of the 25 least successful organizations that took a position on at least 25 bills this session. 

These groups got their way less than half the time. But that’s not to say they didn’t have their share of wins.

For instance, the California Chamber of Commerce, with a success rate of 44%, took positions on 130 bills, but it saw 36 of the bills it opposed die. 

These victories included the deaths of 15 of its 19 2023 “Job Killer Bills.” Those included Newsom’s veto of a union-backed bill that would have provided unemployment benefits to striking workers, and it counted as a victory another failed bill that would have increased the state’s greenhouse gas reduction targets. 

Law enforcement organizations also fared relatively poorly. For instance, the California Sheriffs Association, with a success rate of 42%, opposed legislation Newsom signed that made it more difficult for sheriffs to issue concealed weapons permits, and it supported a failed bill that would have increased penalties for thefts worth more than $275,000.

The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association had the lowest success rate of any organization that took a position on 25 or more bills. Despite spending $3.6 million on lobbying in California last year, just 29% of the 31 bills went the anti-tax group’s way.

The conservative association’s losses included a failed bill that would have reduced taxes on employer-paid education assistance and another Republican-sponsored bill that would have required the Legislative Analyst’s Office to write ballot initiative summaries instead of the partisan Attorney General’s Office. The last time a Republican was elected California Attorney General was 1994.

Asked about the rankings, Jon Coupal, the association’s president, said he was surprised the organization fared as well as it did in CalMatters’ analysis. 

“Quite frankly, we don’t care about wins or losses,” he said. “We care that someone is articulating the position that is in the best interest of California taxpayers. And I think we do that very effectively. And it is a fact that the majority of legislators — in fact, a super majority of legislators — don’t believe in the principles that we believe.”