Donor Funded Trips for CA Lawmakers Remain Shrouded in Secrecy
Japan, Portugal, Switzerland — this is just a small sample of the many far-flung locations where California legislators travel, paid for by interest groups and nonprofit organizations. For the sake of transparency, lawmakers must submit trip reports to the Fair Political Practices Commission every year.
The groups that pay for the travel, on the other hand? Not so much.
As CalMatters’ politics reporter Alexei Koseff and data journalist Jeremia Kimelman explain, in the seven years since a state law took effect that required trip organizers to disclose the major donors who travel with elected officials, only two organizations have filed reports.
The nonprofits — often funded by corporations, unions, and industry groups that lobby the Legislature and state agencies — sometimes voluntarily share lists of donors. But they’re not required to reveal how much money they receive and from whom.
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The author of the original bill, former state Sen. Jerry Hill, said he crafted qualifications that he believed major trip organizers would easily meet, compelling them to disclose more information to the public:
— Travel gifts that total more than $10,000, or at least $5,000 to a single official, in a given year.
— Spending for travel related to elected officials makes up at least one-third of the organization’s total expenses.
Many Groups Duck Disclosure
Two organizations, the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy and the Independent Voter Project, are cited specifically by Hill as inspirations for the 2015 law, but both told CalMatters they had never met the one-third of total expenses threshold.
- Hill, to CalMatters: “It’s frustrating. It is law, and it should be followed. And it’s disappointing that some have used whatever reason they can find to not follow the law.”
The Fair Political Practices Commission is the watchdog group that’s responsible for enforcing the law but cannot say if organizations are failing to comply. The commission has never clarified potentially ambiguous language in the rules, and investigates queries only if it receives a complaint, though none have been filed.
- Jay Wierenga, a spokesperson for the commission, in an email: “In my experience, most of the folks who deal with this are sophisticated enough and/or smart enough to follow the rules and hire legal counsel to make sure they’re following it.”
A reminder: These trips are legal. Legislators can accept unlimited free travel as long as trips are related to policy issues, or they plan on giving a speech or participate in a panel.
Take a Deeper Look at State Lawmakers
CalMatters data journalist Jeremia Kimelman has built a database of the economic interest forms that legislators must file. You can look up information about some of their financial assets and the gifts they accept, as well as their paid trips. Look at the data here.
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About the Author
Lynn La is the WhatMatters newsletter writer. Prior to joining CalMatters, she developed thought leadership at an ed-tech company and was a senior editor at CNET. She also covered public health at The Sacramento Bee as a Kaiser media fellow and was an intern reporter at Capitol Weekly. She’s a graduate of UC Davis and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom committed to explaining California policy and politics.