They toured renewable energy projects in Scandinavia, attended panels on public safety in Maui and learned about how dentists are trained in New York City.
California lawmakers were treated to more than $550,000 in travel-related expenses in 2013, according to an analysis by The Sacramento Bee. Much of the travel was funded by foreign governments, foundations fueled by corporate and labor money and nonprofits tied to specific industries.
That far exceeds the total sum in 2012, when outside organizations bestowed about $329,000 worth of travel expenses on lawmakers. The most costly Assembly travelers in 2013 included Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, D-Los Angeles ($30,354) and Assemblyman Travis Allen, R-Huntington Beach ($23,116). Topping the Senate list were Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens ($30,373), and Sen. Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles ($20,157).
Domestically, lawmakers soaked up sunshine at policy conferences in Hawaii, toured the hydraulic fracturing industry in North Dakota and flew to New York for an “oral health education forum,” courtesy of a dental industry nonprofit.
One lawmaker was compensated for a pair of trips to Washington, D.C., for symposiums put on by the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization that has attracted attention for drafting blueprints for conservative state legislation. Others attended a two-day golf tournament and policy seminar put on by the formidable California Correctional Peace Officers Association.
Passports also came out for trips abroad, with lawmakers embarking on tours of Switzerland, Poland, Norway, Taiwan, Israel, China, Armenia, Sweden, Canada and South Korea.
Subsidized jaunts to other states and foreign countries have become an annual ritual, attracting scrutiny and skepticism, and 2013 was no exception.
There is no inherent issue with travel, said Robert Stern, former president of the Center for Governmental Studies and one of the co-authors of the landmark Political Reform Act – it can let lawmakers deepen their knowledge by observing how other governments craft policy and tackle complex public works projects. What matters, Stern said, is not the destination but who is funding the voyage.
“I have a problem with the travel in the sense of it’s not disclosed where money is coming from, and that special interests that are giving to nonprofits are paying for travel,” Stern said. “If the travel is important, and it is important, I think the state should pay for it.”
It can also be difficult to identify the places lawmakers are visiting. State law does not require politicians to disclose the location of events they attended.
“The statute only requires identification of the business activity of the source of the travel payment, the date, and amount,” Jay Wierenga, a spokesman for the California Fair Political Practices Commission, wrote in an email.
The voluminous sums spent on foreign travel highlight the different rules governing conventional gifts to lawmakers and certain kinds of travel.
In an attempt to blunt special interest influence, California caps at $440 annually the value of gifts each lawmaker can receive from each interest group. So while filings released this week show legislators accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars of freebies both lavish and mundane last year, from bottles of wine to concert and football tickets to $5 reusable bags, there was a ceiling on the generosity of gift-givers.
Not so when it comes to plane tickets and accommodations. Lawmakers can accept unlimited amounts of travel and lodging money if the trip is “reasonably related to a legislative or governmental purpose” and is paid for by a government or educational entity. They are frequently reimbursed for delivering speeches and sitting on panels, so long as travel is involved.
Some of the trips, like those to Taiwan and Armenia, were funded by the governments of those countries.
Others drew financial support from privately funded foundations. The sojourns in Scandinavia and Poland were organized by the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy, whose members run the spectrum from labor groups to major corporations.
The tradition of free trips has attracted criticism for bringing lawmakers in close proximity with industry and union representatives, as is the case with a recurring Maui trip sponsored by the Independent Voter Project each fall. That trip’s organizer has consistently defended it as an educational exercise with strict rules barring lawmakers and trip sponsors from discussing legislation.
“The conference brings together legislators from both parties, away from the partisanship of Sacramento, and provides an opportunity for them to have civil discussions about serious issues,” Independent Voter Project board member Dan Howle said in an email. “There have been numerous bipartisan bills introduced over the years as a result of conversations that have taken place at the conference.”
But critics see a gaping loophole that allows would-be influencers to sidestep gift limits.
“It’s the one big area of gifts that we see as a huge problem,” said Sarah Swanbeck, a policy advocate for California Common Cause. “It’s sort of a blind spot, in terms of this is clearly something politicians can benefit from.”