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How California Legislators Got More Than $1.4 Million in Travel and Gifts in 2023
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By CalMatters
Published 1 month ago on
April 14, 2024

Insights into the financial disclosures of California's lawmakers, revealing potential conflicts of interest through gifts and sponsored travel. (CalMatters/Adriana Heldiz/iStock)

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Last June, more than half of California’s lawmakers — Republicans and Democrats alike, with no particular ideological preference — attended a celebratory gala for new Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas. They left with a gift: A personally engraved box worth $85.94.

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Jeremia Kimelman

CalMatters

These gifts are documented in financial disclosures that elected officials in California have to file every March for the previous calendar year. The reports, officially called Form 700, provide insight into gifts, sponsored travel, plus any property they own and stocks they hold.

As part of the new Digital Democracy initiative, CalMatters has extracted the information from these reports into a series of spreadsheets that are accessible to the public and has analyzed them to give a glimpse into potential financial conflicts of interest.

How Much Were Gifts Worth?

First, the rules: If you take a legislator out to dinner and the bill is at least $50, they have to report it. And if you give them something that puts them over the $590 annual gift limit, they have to give it back.

In 2023, gifts worth a total of more than $330,000 were given to legislators, according to the reports. That total is more than double the $163,000 worth of gifts reported in 2022.

All but one of the 120 lawmakers received a gift. The outlier: Sen. Dave Cortese, a Campbell Democrat, who hasn’t reported taking a gift for at least the last three years.

Democratic Assemblymember Avelino Valencia from Anaheim reported accepting, and then reimbursing, just more than $2,300 in gifts and $1,100 in sponsored travel. “Not accepting gifts or reimbursing for the cost of gifts has been a policy of mine since serving on the Anaheim City Council,” he said in an email. “It dismisses perceived narratives that do not align with my values as a public servant.”

An analysis of the gift givers reflects who controls the Legislature — Democrats. Nearly 20% came from party leaders, a total of $24,000, almost all for food and drinks at policy retreats. The value of all the gifts Democrats reported receiving is more than five times reported by Republicans, who hold 26 of the 120 seats.

The “Speaker 2023 Inaugural Fund” run by Rivas gave $22,000 worth of stuff at that big reception, including those engraved boxes. The fund accepted donations of at least $25,000 each from labor unions, including those representing nurses, prison guards and teachers. Businesses, such as Kaiser and PG&E, cut checks for $50,000 each.

Anthony Rendon, Rivas’ predecessor as Assembly speaker, ranked third on the list of top gift givers, doling out $16,000 worth of food and jackets to 19 lawmakers.

Wining and dining comprised more than a quarter of all gifts last year; at least $85,000 was spent picking up the tab for more than 100 legislators on more than 750 occasions. (Legislators get paid $128,215 a year, plus $214 a day for expenses when they’re in session, and leaders get more.)

But not all the gifts were from interest or advocacy groups, and some even show the human connection between legislators.

Assemblymember Corey Jackson, Democrat from Moreno Valley, gave 16 of his female coworkers flowers for their birthdays, at a total cost of about $1,000. They were bipartisan bouquets; three went to Republicans in the Assembly.

Assemblymember Lori Wilson, a Democrat from Suisun City who underwent treatment for breast cancer last year, received flowers from Jackson and from 14 other individuals and groups, worth about $1,400 in total.

Free Travel for Legislators

Fancy dinners and receptions are nice, but the annual gift limit keeps the total relatively low. That isn’t the case with sponsored travel, which is effectively unlimited.

Special interest groups and nonprofits flew lawmakers to Argentina, Canada, France and elsewhere around the globe. In 2023, more than 100 groups spent about $1.1 million on sponsored trips, compared to 85 groups and $950,000 in travel in 2022.

While 105 legislators reported taking at least one trip last year, three accepted more than $30,000 worth.

Sen. Nancy Skinner, an Oakland Democrat, reported her four trips were worth $38,000, the most of any legislator. The trips are valuable for getting ideas about what works well, including countries with similar infrastructure, she said.

“We did intensive learning about France’s high speed rail, which is of course much harder to learn about in the U.S. since, where do we have examples of electric high-speed rail?” she said.

Skinner also said she doesn’t accept every invitation for a trip, only those on her key interests: energy, the environment, housing and public safety.

Assemblymember Mike Gipson, a Gardena Democrat, reported trips with the second highest value — 10 journeys worth more than $31,000. Assemblymember Mike Fong, a Democrat from Monterey Park, accepted 15 trips that were worth more than $30,600.

Assemblymember Blanca Pacheco, Democrat from Downey, was the most frequent traveler. She reported taking 18 trips last year, but they were valued at only $27,150.

Even if the trips lead to policy or ideas for legislators, when nonprofits invite legislators and their representatives attend as well, it creates at least the appearance of a potential conflict of interest, said Carmen Balbar, executive director of Consumer Watchdog.

“If you have somebody’s ear, you have a chance to influence them. And most constituents of every lawmaker isn’t going to be able to sponsor a trip for their representative,” she said.

More transparency could help reassure Californians that their legislators are working in the public interest, she said: “Maybe, when we pull back the curtain and have an idea of who was there and what their interests might be, we’ll be able to better parse if they’re lobbying or not.”

This session, Sen. Ben Allen, an El Segundo Democrat, is pushing a bill to increase disclosure of these trips.

As CalMatters reported last year, a 2015 law intended to require more transparency by organizations that sponsor legislative travel has had little impact. It requires annual reports by these groups listing any donors who gave more than $1,000 and also accompanied elected officials on any portion of a trip — but only if the travel expenses totaled more than $10,000, or at least $5,000 to a single official and if the spending accounts for at least one-third of the nonprofit’s total expenses.

Allen’s bill would delete that second requirement about expenses and also require disclosure from any person who organizes trips, whether it’s a nonprofit or a business. He said Monday that he authored the measure largely in response to the CalMatters story.

“If you’re a massive organization that is spending money on a gazillion other things, does that make the disclosure of your trips any less meaningful or impactful and important?” he asked. “Disclosure helps the press and the public and other folks that are trying to engage in the political process to better understand the system that’s in place to influence legislators.”

Allen, himself, went on 6 trips valued at $13,960 last year, plus $40,000 worth in 2022.

Just as in 2022, the largest sponsor of trips last year was the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy, and it wasn’t close. The group spent about $375,000 — nearly one-third of the total for all trip sponsors — to take legislators on “study tours,” where legislators and some foundation board members meet with foreign business and government leaders to learn about policy.

The San Francisco-based nonprofit has organized these tours for decades, funded and attended by representatives of companies and interest groups with business before the state. The foundation’s board is made up of organizations that don’t usually agree on issues, such as the Western States Petroleum Association and the Environmental Defense Fund, or municipal water providers and irrigation districts that mostly serve agricultural interests.

In an email to CalMatters last year, Jay Hansen, president and CEO of the foundation, said the purpose of the trips is not to advocate on behalf of its board members’ interests but to help lawmakers “better understand complex issues, witness best practices, and contemplate policy implications.”

At the same time, the foundation has said the trips have led to bills. Legislators who have gone on these trips told CalMatters last year that they are useful.

In 2023 the nonprofit sponsored eight trips, three abroad, including last March to Denmark, where nine legislators looked at offshore wind and other low carbon energy sources. Some foundation events are closer to home: In February 2023, 18 legislators went to Napa for an energy policy conference, and in June, seven lawmakers also went to Napa for a transportation policy retreat and stayed at the ritzy Silverado Hotel.

The pace of travel picked up in the second half of 2023, though, with a trip nearly every month. That’s expected: The fall of odd numbered years is called the “interim study recess” by the state Senate because there aren’t legislative elections, giving lawmakers time to learn about policy.

Last fall, the foundation took legislators to British Columbia to learn about recycling, to Lake Tahoe to talk about technology and to Southern California in September to observe more low carbon energy projects. Legislators toured high-speed rail in France in October and closed out the year at a water conference at the Ritz-Carlton in Laguna Niguel.

The next largest funder of legislator travel in 2023 was the California YIMBY Education Fund, which spent $72,500 to take five legislators to London and Paris for a week to learn about transit, housing, and land use policies.

It was the first year the pro-housing group sponsored legislative travel, with a goal to “open up conversations with legislators,” said Matthew Lewis, the organization’s director of communications.

While the group might organize another trip, it prioritizes policymaking in Sacramento. “If we ever found ourselves in a budget crunch, we wouldn’t be doing this because our mission is to pass pro-housing policy in California,” Lewis said.

Some legislators reported trips that were sponsored by multiple organizations. One example: The Bay Area Caucus Policy Retreat, a January 2023 event in Sausalito that involved as many as seven groups: the Asian Pacific Islander Legislative Caucus, California State Association of Electrical Workers, California Teachers Association, San Manuel Mission Band of Indians, United Food and Commercial Workers and PG&E. They reported spending more than $8,400 for eight legislators to attend.

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About the Author

Jeremia is a data journalist who uses code and data to make policy and politicians easier to understand. He was previously a graphics editor at the COVID Tracking Project and a data journalist at NBC News covering elections and national politics. He grew up in California and is excited to be back home after an extended time as a New Yorker. When he isn’t on the computer you can find him out in the garden or on a bicycle.

About CalMatters

CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan newsroom committed to explaining California policy and politics.

 

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