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In a state Capitol where money has been scarce more than plentiful in recent years, one pile of cash remains consistently strong: the large sums spent by powerful interest groups to lobby lawmakers and government officials.

Newly compiled state reports show $280.2 million was spent on lobbying California state government in 2013, with the ten largest lobbying groups spending a combined $30.5 million on their efforts. Overall lobbying expenditures rose slightly from 2012, according to data compiled by the secretary of state's office, but were slightly lower than the total in 2011.

It's money that can distort the process of writing laws, say some.

"The average person doesn't have that same type of influence," said Sarah Swanbeck, a policy advocate for the nonprofit watchdog Common Cause California.

Government sector groups dominated the 2013 spending tracked by state reports, accounting for $42 million of the total. But as with so many lobbying employers in other sectors, a few big players dominated. While 348 separate local and tribal government entities reported spending money to lobby in 2013, the top 30 entities accounted for almost half -- about $20.1 million -- of the spending. They were led the California State Association of Counties ($1.486 million); Los Angeles County ($1.476 million); and the League of California Cities ($1.33 million).

Other sectors of lobbying largess in the first year of the Legislature's current two-year session included health care ($37.5 million); manufacturing and industrial groups ($22.65 million); and financial and insurance companies ($19.93 million).

A top ten list of highest spending interest groups, compiled by the daily Capitol Morning Report newspaper, found the Western States Petroleum Association as having the biggest individual tab for lobbying state government in 2013 -- more than $4.67 million. A spokesman for the group declined to comment for this story.

The oil and gas trade group was joined in the top ten by Chevron, ranking third at $3.95 million. The two together spent much of 2013 lobbying against either a moratorium or strict regulation of hydraulic fracturing ('fracking'), as well as issues ranging from the implementation of California's 2006 climate change law to the development of a low carbon fuel standard for the state.

Health care players dominated the top ten lobbyist employers of the year, driven in large part by the Legislature's long list of bills deigned to help implement the Affordable Care Act. Considerable attention was also paid by health sector lobbyists to the state budget, including legislation to increase the payment rate for providers with patients in the Medi-Cal system.

Organized labor groups, led by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), landed two spots on the top ten list of 2013 lobbying expenditures, including the state council of service employees ranking second in spending with more than $4.2 million. Several business interests also spent heavily, including the California Chamber of Commerce ($3.7 million) and AT&T ($2.33 million).

"We're definitely there trying to educate lawmakers about the importance of jobs and the economy in every decision they make," said Denise Davis, CalChamber's vice president for external affairs.

And the chamber got a lot of what it wanted in 2013, with only one bill on what it calls its annual 'job killers' list signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown -- a minimum wage increase that kicks in this summer.

If anything, much of the annual spending on lobbying may be a reflection of the sense by powerful interest groups that they need to match the efforts of the ideological and political rivals.

"Legislators are going to hear from all their different groups," said CalChamber's Davis. "They're going to hear from environmentalists and all kinds of folks. And it's really important that the employer community has a voice, a very strong voice."

But others with keen interest in the shaping of public policy simply can't compete. Common Cause's Sarah Swanbeck says the most expensive lobbying effort includes veterans of the so-called 'Third House' who have long standing relationships with legislators and staff and know well how the influence game works.

"It's like the loudest voices in the room sometimes are the ones with the biggest pockets," she said.

NOTE: The aggregate totals in the News10 television story are slightly lower than reported here, as data reported to the secretary of state was updated late in the day on Monday, after our TV news deadline.

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