Led by former Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, eight California senators visited Japan last summer to discuss high-speed rail, renewable energy and climate change. The lawmakers met with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, toured the National Diet and spoke to the Japan National Press Club.
Senate officials said at the time that the weeklong trip would be paid for through the legislators' campaign accounts, and each attendee spent an average of $6,524 in political donations on their travel.
But state taxpayers also wrote checks: The Senate spent $13,635 in public money to send two legislative staff members to Japan with the delegation, in addition to staff time involved in planning the trip.
The Japan tour was among about two dozen over the past five years — to locations including Paris, Brazil, Mexico City and Cuba — on which the California Legislature has spent more than $192,000 in public funds for international travel by staff members, according to a Sacramento Bee analysis of travel records since 2013.
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The trips were primarily for official legislative delegations, Senate and Assembly representatives said. Staff members accompanied the lawmakers, whose costs were not covered by taxpayers, to provide logistical support and security.
"There’s always a legislative purpose when they’re doing these trips," Secretary of the Senate Danny Alvarez said. The lawmakers "need to have exacting agendas and itineraries" to justify the travel, he said, and the staff keeps them on schedule.
Staff foreign travel represents a tiny fraction of the Legislature's annual expenditures, which topped $267 million last year, primarily for salaries and benefits. But the arrangement is not common to other statehouses, according to travel policies provided by the offices of legislative leaders in seven states.
In the Florida Senate, the Texas House of Representatives, the New York Senate and the Washington Senate, legislative or administrative officials must approve any out-of-state travel involving taxpayer dollars. All said they had used no public money for foreign trips by lawmakers or their staff in the past five years.
The Nevada Legislature has no formal policy on staff travel, but lawmakers can reimburse up to $1,000 per year to attend meetings of certain national legislative organizations outside the state. A spokesman said the Arizona Legislature eliminated its travel budget during the economic recession and has not approved foreign or domestic trips for anyone since 2009.
Only the Oregon Senate said it had reimbursed any international travel in the past five years: for two senators who participated in official state delegations to Canada and China, and for a staff member who accompanied the China delegation in 2015.
While calling the money spent on international travel "budget dust" for the California Legislature, Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association President Jon Coupal said the "importance is not so much in the dollar amount as it is indicative of an elitist attitude" that lawmakers need to be accompanied by aides at the taxpayers' expense.
He questioned why, if the travel is legitimately in the public interest, lawmakers are using campaign funds to pay for it — and why the public is then still on the hook for staff costs.
The Senate accounts for the bulk of the spending: In response to a records request from The Bee, it provided receipts and reimbursement forms related to 21 different foreign trips over the past five years, totaling $154,138.
Assembly records show that it had sent sergeants-at-arms on four trips abroad since December 2015, at a cost of $38,364. Spokesman Kevin Liao said travel for members and other support staff was funded by outside sources, but it "is practice that sergeants' travel are paid out of Assembly funds because of their official security role."
In addition to campaign accounts, lawmaker travel is occasionally funded by nonprofit organizations or foreign governments.
Environmental group Climate Action Reserve raised money from PG&E, BMW, The Nature Conservancy and more to take a legislative delegation to the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, where they were accompanied by two Assembly sergeants. Fundación Nueva Generación Argentina brought a Senate delegation to Buenos Aires in 2015, while the Senate paid for two staff members to attend. The host countries covered some transportation, security and interpreting costs for an official legislative delegation to El Salvador, Guatemala and Panama in 2014.
Legislative officials say the trips are an important opportunity for California lawmakers to develop relationships with their counterparts in other countries.
"They bring back quite a lot," said Ezilda Samoville, director of the Senate Office of International Relations, who often accompanies the delegations abroad. "They learn from each other what has worked and what hasn't. And I think it's always a positive experience for them."
Her four-person office, which was established in 1987, plans programs for foreign dignitaries visiting the Senate and serves as a liaison between senators and consulates in California.
It also organizes the international travel for Senate delegations. While some of those trips are requested by lawmakers interested in studying particular issues, Samoville said, the majority are the result of invitations from foreign governments. Her office fields those offers.
In 2016, a legislative delegation to Mexico and El Salvador, focused on immigration issues such as a recent surge of unaccompanied minors, met with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Óscar Ortiz, vice president of El Salvador, among other top officials, Samoville said.
Senators traveled in 2015 to Argentina to examine trade and energy issues, such as hydroelectric power, she said, and to Denmark, Sweden and Norway to learn primarily about their criminal justice systems.
"We act as security and staffing the senators" on their trips, she said. "We work with the security in those countries, and we make sure, to the extent possible, that our Senate officials are as secure as we can have them. And we make sure that the planned program goes as we had organized."
Hotel accommodations make up the largest cost for international travel by legislative staff, totaling about $92,000 in the past five years. Some locations where they've stayed, such as the Hotel Bellevue Palace in Bern, Switzerland, or the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, run more than $300 per night.
Samoville said her office books lodging based on the recommendations of the U.S. embassy in the country the delegation is visiting or the foreign government that is hosting them.
The Legislature has also spent $49,098 on airfare; $24,576 on per diem payments, the daily allowances for public employees on business trips to cover living expenses such as meals; $10,686 on transportation such as train tickets, ferry rides and taxis; and $6,737 on interpreting services.
The remaining expenditures, about $7,300, encompass miscellaneous items like overweight baggage fees; tips for drivers, concierges, and porters; and tickets to cultural sites.
During the 2016 trip to Mexico and El Salvador, Samoville bought a laptop charger from Best Buy for $43.59. An employee's tour of the ancient city of Tikal in Guatemala with a 2014 delegation to Central America cost $371.65. The Senate spent $144.10 on See's Candies to provide gifts on visits to Japan and to Portugal and Spain in 2014.
Samoville said staff members are reimbursed for anything they need to accompany the official delegation.
"It's whatever is appropriate to travel," she said. "Those are things that are expected."
The Assembly sent sergeants-at-arms as security on three official trips in the past six months: to Germany last November for a global climate summit hosted by the United Nations, to Mexico in January for trade and climate change discussions and to El Salvador in February for talks about immigration.
Liao said in a statement that "these delegations are not 'one-off' visits. We have established relationships that allow legislators to have continued discussions and substantive exchanges with their counterparts."
Since the Mexico visit, Liao said, the Assembly has been developing a plan for biannual meetings between elected officials from California and Mexico about the "most pressing challenges in our relationship."
After meeting with the environment minister from Baden-Württemberg last fall, he said, the Assembly expects to host officials from the German state later this year to continue their discussions on the development of clean energy and electric vehicles.
The most frequent destination for international travel is Japan; Senate employees have been there six times in the past five years. Four of those trips were for official legislative delegations and two were to supervise the California Japan Scholars Program.
The student exchange program, which is overseen by the Senate Office of International Relations, was created in 1996 at the suggestion of then-Ambassador Walter Mondale, who wanted more California students to visit Japan as a way to foster stronger economic and cultural ties.
While originally drawing participants from across the state, Samoville said, it is now primarily an exchange between the Elk Grove Unified School District and Osaka, Japan, who in alternating years send about 30 students overseas for a few weeks.
"Our office assists with some of the arrangements," she said, and "one of our staff members accompanies as a chaperone."
"That is to create more understanding between the two countries," she said.