- Associated Press - Thursday, March 17, 2016

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) - California’s political watchdog panel voted Thursday to change state rules in an attempt to limit the practice of so-called “ride-alongs” in which people who are not registered lobbyists tag along to meetings with public officials.

But some say the move will do little to curb the ongoing problem of unreported lobbying.

People who are paid more than $2,000 a month to directly communicate with public officials about legislation are required to register as lobbyists and submit quarterly reports. But a state rule provides an exemption for so-called experts who often attend meetings with elected officials and registered lobbyists.

The Fair Political Practices Commission voted 3-1 to narrow, but not eliminate, that rule. The commission decided Thursday to call those individuals “subject matter experts.”

“The exception is very narrow,” said Heather Rowan, a commission attorney who crafted the change. “If you’re not there to add some sort of substance to the issue being discussed, there’s no reason for you to be there or you should be a ‘lobbyist.’”

Chairwoman Jodi Remke said she expects the clarification will force more people to disclose their time spent at the state Capitol.

“It’s not illegal to lobby. Just register as a lobbyist,” Remke said after the hearing.

The regulation has been criticized for allowing former lawmakers to legally skirt a mandatory one-year waiting period against lobbying their former colleagues after they leave office.

Thursday’s vote attempts to toughen the rule. However, Rowan said executives who have occasional contact with lawmakers can still avoid disclosure.

Bill Dombrowski, president and chief executive of the California Retailers Association, said he stopped registering as a lobbyist more than a decade ago because regulators “were changing the rules constantly.”

“It didn’t make sense for me to continue being a registered lobbyist because that’s not what I was doing most of the time anyway,” Dombrowski said. “There’s no way I come close to the threshold.”

He and other executives who don’t believe they meet the state’s definition of lobbyists have used the exemption to avoid tracking their time at the Legislature. They’re concerned the commission’s vote Thursday still leaves the rule up for interpretation.

Dombrowski said he and his lawyer are not sure if they will need to resume the “annoyance” of lobbying paperwork.

Rowan said if he lives up to the dictionary definition of an “expert” and his lobbying activity relates to that expertise, he probably does not need to report.

Commissioner Gavin Wasserman, the dissenting vote Thursday, said he does not believe the amendment will change behavior.

“If it doesn’t really resolve the ambiguity, what value have we added?” he said.

The commission typically refrains from accepting quick-fixes labeled as improvements, Wasserman said.

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