Fairmont Kea Lani

Sixteen California lawmakers are Maui-bound.

Viewpoints: Lawmakers' penchant for freebies lives on

Published: Friday, Mar. 8, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 13A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2013 - 6:08 am

Entitlement: A notion or belief that one is entitled to special treatment, reward or benefit.

Say what you will about the California Legislature, and people have said plenty, you can be certain that no matter the criticism, there is one thing that will never change, and that is the sense of entitlement that seems to go hand-in-hand with being elected to the state Senate or Assembly.

I once lived in Davis near a lower-ranking assemblyman who routinely had a sergeant-at-arms drive to his home to chauffeur him to work in Sacramento, even though he had a state-leased car sitting in his driveway. He felt he was entitled.

Another time I was waiting for a table at a downtown restaurant when a state senator came in with an aide in tow. The aide shoved himself to the front of the line and told the hostess that the senator was very busy and needed a table right away. He felt he was entitled.

I don't recall the hostess's exact words, but I loved her response, which was that she was impressed but he would still have to wait like everybody else.

There have always been legislators who see themselves as not being subject to the same rules as the rest of us. They've lavished themselves with perks and big staffs, held phony end-of-the-week sessions to preserve their per- diems and held end-of-session fundraisers to milk contributors with stakes in pending bills.

But just how ethically challenged they can be was on full display in two recent Bee stories by Capitol Bureau reporter Jim Sanders, one about their gift-taking from people currying their favor, the other about the free trips they take on someone else's money.

At the risk of sounding journalistically self-righteous, I have to say I don't know of a major newspaper, including The Bee, that doesn't have strict ethics rules that preclude staff members from taking free tickets, gifts or trips from anyone. There was a time when sportswriters traveled on team charters without paying, but that practice ended years ago. And political reporters – or their news organizations – pay premium rates to travel on campaign charters.

Legislators routinely dismiss suggestions that they are influenced by the freebies by saying that they cannot be bought for two tickets to a Kings game or a plane ticket to Hawaii. Maybe not. But there is a reason why unions, corporations and individuals are so generous, and it's not because they admire a lawmaker's good looks and personality.

As Sanders reported, members of the Senate and Assembly took food, travel, tickets and other gifts totaling more than a half-million dollars last year, which was actually down a bit from 2011, when they accepted $750,000 in gifts of all kinds.

Sports and concert tickets were a hot item, with lawmakers receiving thousands of dollars worth of tickets to basketball, football and baseball games and musical events, plus passes to Disneyland and SeaWorld.

It's also noteworthy that the free trips are always to Hawaii or some other exotic warm-weather locale, not Prudhoe Bay. As Sanders reported, 17 legislators attended one of two Maui public policy conferences last November, each trip financed by a nonprofit group. The nonprofits, of course, realize their income from interests with business before the Legislature but whose identities are not disclosed.

Finally, we come to the case of former state Sen. Michael Rubio, who gives whole new definition to the word "entitlement." He took favors from an oil company executive while chairing a committee that dealt with oil industry issues and carried legislation favorable to the industry. He resigned from the Senate last month to go to work for Chevron, necessitating an expensive special election in his Kern County district. What a guy.

It could be worse. Not long ago, a major oil company, BP America, maintained an automated hotline that legislators or their staffs could call to request free tickets to events at what is now called Sleep Train Arena.

There also were reports a few years ago that a major telecommunications company had a dedicated, private email service for the same purpose.

And there was a time, prior to the passage of Proposition 9 in 1974, when lobbyists were free to run tabs for legislators at local restaurants and bars.

Current state law permits legislators to accept up to $420 in gifts from a single source during the year. There is no limit on free travel as long as there is a stated governmental, legislative or public policy purpose, and it's pretty easy to come up with such a purpose.

Oddly enough, the public perception of the Legislature's job performance is slightly on the upswing. A Field Poll last month showed a 36 percent approval rating, considerably better than any of 16 previous surveys over the past five years, when it has dipped to as low as 10 percent. There is no apparent reason for the improvement.

William Endicott is a former deputy managing editor for The Bee.

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