California lawmakers accepted more than half a million dollars’ worth of sponsored travel in 2016, visiting locations from Pebble Beach to Beijing on trips paid for by industry associations, nonprofit organizations and foreign governments.
Current and former legislators reported at least $515,000 in free airfare, lodging, meals and other travel gifts, according to statements of economic interests filed this week with the Fair Political Practices Commission. Of the 120 members of the Legislature and more than two dozen who left office at the end of last year, 41 reported no sponsored trips, while another four did not submit their required forms.
The total represents a substantial dip from 2015, when lawmakers accepted at least $612,000 in free travel, but it is significantly more than they reported in the prior two election years: about $371,000 in 2014 and $329,000 in 2012.
Lawmakers can take sponsored travel, as long as is it considered educational in nature or they give a talk or speak on a panel while they are there. Trips range from relatively inexpensive retreats in Napa and Lake Tahoe to overseas expeditions that cost thousands of dollars.
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The biggest last year were “study travel programs” organized by the California Foundation for the Environment and the Economy, a San Francisco-based organization of oil and technology companies, utilities, labor unions, water agencies and environmental groups that sent lawmakers to Australia to learn about drought response and to Germany and the Czech Republic to review their use of renewable energy.
“CFEE brings California decision makers at the highest levels together to examine the critical issues of our time,” spokesman P.J. Johnston said in an email. “Study travel projects are an opportunity to examine best practices from around the world – to see what has worked elsewhere, and what hasn’t – so that California’s leaders might learn from those examples.”
Transparency advocates are skeptical of the value of these trips. Kathay Fang, executive director of California Common Cause, said there are events that teach something to legislators, but others are simply an opportunity for special interests to buy face time with elected officials.
“Sometimes it is not easy to make a distinction,” she said. “There are some lobbyists and special interests that are taking advantage of the educational exemption to cozy up to legislators outside of the public eye.”
She cited the infamous “Maui junket,” an annual conference hosted by the California Independent Voter Project that has become the poster child for the controversy around sponsored travel. Each November, lawmakers are brought to a Hawaiian resort for educational sessions and schmoozing with representatives of corporate backers like Eli Lilly, PG&E, FedEx and AT&T that pay thousands of dollars to attend.
A dozen current and former members attended in 2016 – receiving an average of nearly $3,300 in expenses – though that was only about half as many as the year before.
Organizer Dan Howle has long defended the conference as a way to bring difficult policy debates into a more relaxed environment. Johnston of CFEE said “one doesn’t need to spend eight hours at a desalination plant in Australia or a solar farm in Eastern Europe to interact with public policymakers. There are plenty of more comfortable, less time-consuming opportunities in Sacramento.”
Assemblyman Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield, took the most sponsored travel last year, worth $26,790 over the course of 10 trips, including $10,374 to Australia and $9,964 to Germany and the Czech Republic with CFEE. He also went to the Council of State Governments West legislative academy in Colorado Springs at a cost of $2,639 and on a $1,600 trip to Half Moon Bay paid for by the Western States Petroleum Association.
He was followed by Sen. Bob Wieckowski, D-Fremont, whose $23,156 in travel included $12,171 for the CFEE Australia trip and $10,362 for the visit to Germany and the Czech Republic.
Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León reported more than a dozen sponsored trips worth $17,478. Climate Action Reserve paid $4,400 to bring the Los Angeles Democrat to Morocco. He visited Puerto Rico for the Senate Presidents’ Forum at a cost of $3,137, and received a $2,211 trip to Pebble Beach from the Governor’s Cup Foundation.
Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Los Angeles, took $6,561 of free travel, primarily for a trip to China with the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries.