WASHINGTON — Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has never been too pleased with what the state of California gets from Washington: He figures taxpayers get back roughly 80 cents for every dollar they pay into the federal government's coffers.
It's certainly not for lack of trying to get more.
In an attempt to increase the state's haul, the governor has a staff of a half-dozen on Capitol Hill, one of the biggest lobbying corps of any state.
Officially, they're not lobbyists. They're state employees. Their job is to track individual bills moving through Congress and leave the state's imprint on legislation and funding formulas for issues involving agriculture, education, immigration, transportation, climate change, flood control, water policy and more.
It's part of the time-honored tradition of bringing home the bacon from Washington.
"It's a good fight," said Linda Ulrich, director of the governor's Washington office since 2007. "It's a tough fight, in a year like now, especially when the deficit is so extremely out of control, to try to get some of this money."
California is one of at least 35 states with an office in Washington, according to the National Governors Association.
Ulrich said the Washington office dates back to at least the 1970s, but its future is uncertain. With Schwarzenegger's term winding down, Ulrich will shut down her operations at the end of the year, and California's new governor will decide the office's fate.
Ulrich, a native Californian, worked as a deputy chief of staff for a California congressman before moving to Schwarzenegger's office. Her job is to oversee federal policies and how they affect California, making recommendations to the governor and to state agencies.
She does her work largely behind the scenes, suggesting when the governor or state officials should write a letter or weigh in with a phone call. As an example, she had the Republican governor place calls to Republican Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine and Scott Brown of Massachusetts in an attempt to win support for a bill for Medicaid funding.
"We're just pushing the issues that are important to California," said Ulrich. "The federal government is our audience. And certainly, members of Congress are our audience. That's who we work with, and that's who we go to, to get help and to get them on board."
David Quam, the NGA's director of federal relations, said a majority of governors believe it's worthwhile to have state offices in Washington because so much money is on the line. On average, he said, 30 percent of a state's budget is comprised of federal money, with Medicaid and education funding making up the largest chunks.
Pete Sepp, executive vice president of the National Taxpayers Union, said the state offices are driving up costs for all taxpayers and merely transferring costs from one unit of government to another.
"What many of them all too often do is lobby for more federal dollars, which will come from other taxpayers anyway," he said. "It's not like Californians don't pay federal income taxes, so they're paying for part of the freight, too. It's the same taxpayer, even if the money is coming out of the front pocket versus the back one."
Sepp said the state offices have become substantial parts of the Washington landscape for one reason: "It takes a lot of energy to find all the nooks and crannies in the federal budget where you can sweep some money out."
While most states rely on state employees to do their lobbying, many states also hire professional lobbyists to do their bidding on Capitol Hill. State and local governments spent more than $83.5 million lobbying the federal government in 2009, according to a report released earlier this month by the Center for Responsive Politics. The report said state and local units of government are spending at near-record levels, even though many of them are running massive deficits.
The California office employed 10 workers but has dwindled to six. That's consistent with across-the-board cuts in the governor's office, where the workforce has declined from 170 to 130 in recent years, said Aaron McLear, the governor's spokesman.
With the office cutting back, Ulrich said, staffers have had to pick up extra issues to focus on. But now, with an election a little more than three month away, the end is rapidly approaching.
"We need to officially close this office out," Ulrich said.
She acknowledged that it's a bit unsettling to not know what the future holds. But with Congress still in session, she said there's too much work to focus on that now: "I can't even think that far."