Capitol Alert

California bill would ban legislative junkets funded by interest groups

Assemblywoman Patty Lopez, speaks in her Capitol office on Feb. 13, 2015.
Assemblywoman Patty Lopez, speaks in her Capitol office on Feb. 13, 2015. The Sacramento Bee

Junkets that whisk California legislators away to exotic locales could become a thing of the past under new legislation.

Typically justified as opportunities for lawmakers to learn more about issues, trips funded by nonprofits and foreign governments have accounted for hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of travel expenses and accommodations over the last few years. An industry-backed conference in Maui has become an annual event. The events regularly draw criticism from government transparency watchdogs who call them thinly veiled attempts to buy access.

Assemblywoman Patty Lopez, D-San Fernando, amplified that critique in introducing Assembly Bill 2840. The bill would prohibit nonprofits from covering travel and lodging expenses for elected officials. Lopez said in a statement that allowing those payments constitutes a lobbying loophole.

They’re not going to learn anything by golfing with lobbyists in Maui.

Assemblywoman Patty Lopez, D-San Fernando

“My neighbors are shocked when they hear about these trips and they say the same thing to me every time: ‘If our elected officials want to learn about the issues, they should come and visit the district and listen to what we have to say. They’re not going to learn anything by golfing with lobbyists in Maui,’ ” Lopez said.

A spokesman for the California Independent Voter Project, an industry-backed nonprofit that sponsors the annual Hawaii trip, said rules governing the conference explicitly prohibit lobbying or discussing legislation. The event offers a rare opportunity to discuss policy away from the partisan pressures and hectic pace of Sacramento, spokesman Dan Howle said.

“We’re not going to be able to do an event that brings legislators together. It just makes the whole process more difficult,” Howle said of Lopez’s bill. “There’s a whole bunch of benefits (to the conference), not the least of which is it promotes some civility between the legislators, Republicans and Democrats.”

In carrying the bill, Lopez solidifies her reputation as a Capitol outsider. A first-term member who won her seat in a stunning upset against a Democratic incumbent, faces an uphill fight to win a second term in a rematch with the man she unseated, Raul Bocanegra.

Open-government advocate Bob Stern, who helped write California’s Political Reform Act, said the source of funding is a key factor in whether legislative travel is appropriate. While he said he would narrow the bill to cover only out-of-state trips, permitting members to speak at California events, “overall it’s right.”

“It’s not just going to Hawaii,” Stern said, recalling a government ethics conference in Honolulu, “it’s who’s paying for it, what the conference is about and the legislators’ role.”

He added that lawmakers will be reluctant to cut off their own source of travel funds. “I think this bill has as much chance of passing as Ben Carson has of getting the nomination for the Republican Party.”

Jeremy B. White: 916-326-5543, @CapitolAlert