Casino Jack versus Casino Government
By Julie Kaszton, policy fellow, Economics and Environment
Casino Jack and the United States of Money, which delves into the most egregious lobbying scandal in decades, is playing to California audiences. The Magnolia Pictures documentary depicts Jack Abramoff as a deceptive super-lobbyist with powerful connections and a knack for wielding his persuasive power in pay-for-play politics.
The film recalls how, in 2006, Abramoff directed several major Native American tribes to donate tens of millions of dollars for his self-enrichment projects. Even more shocking was his ability to extort his links to these casino-rich tribes to collect more than $100,000 to fund leading GOP congressional candidates as well as earn himself premier status within President George W. Bush’s re-election campaign.
Casino Jack informs the public on an important subject, but it neglects a key reality. The biggest and most out-of-control lobbyist is not Jack Abramoff, nor any individual or firm, but government itself. Largely out of the public eye, the flagrant use of taxpayer dollars for government lobbying continues to undermine the basic principles of American democracy.
According to the California Secretary of State’s Cal-Access, within the 2007-2008 legislative session, more than $39 million was spent on lobbying for education, and more than double that amount, $92 million, was spent on government lobbying. In fact, approximately $57 million has already been spent on government lobbying in the 2009-2010 session.
State-Level Lobbying and Taxpayers: How Much Do We Really Know?, a recent study by the Pacific Research Institute, shows that one in every four dollars spent on lobbying in California is taxpayer money. This activity ranges from entities such as the California Sea Urchin Commission to school districts and major cities.
Within the 2007-2008 legislative session, the city of San Francisco spent more than $1.4 million on lobbying efforts, all funded by unrestricted taxpayer dollars. The San Francisco Unified School District alone spent $216,000 on lobbying, $99,000 of which was to hire a Sacramento lobbying firm. And at the close of fiscal year 2009, the San Francisco Ethics Commission recorded that 42 registered lobbyists reported more than $6.5 million in earnings.
Despite the corrupt nature of his dealings, Abramoff’s case brought to light something inherently flawed in government lobbying. As the film puts it, “Abramoff would not have flourished had the system itself not been corrupt. . . the price of a free society is to be vigilant.” A general lack of transparency leads to lack of accountability which becomes a breeding ground for corruption.
California audiences may find Casino Jack entertaining, informative, and even infuriating. They should save some outrage for taxpayer funded lobbying. This highly suspect activity is a much bigger player, fully deserving a documentary of its own, perhaps titled Casino Government.
In the meantime, California is facing unemployment of more than 12 percent and a budget deficit of nearly $20 billion. In these conditions, is government-to-government lobbying the most effective use of our taxpayer dollars?
California needs a full and open debate on this activity, with more transparency, better disclosure, and all types of lobbying held to a single standard. PRI’s State-Level Lobbying and Taxpayers analyzes 37 types of lobbying disclosure across the 50 states. California ranked 20th with a score of 23 out of 37 (62 percent). That leaves much room for improvement.