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How free trips for California legislators lead to bills

This article appeared in Calmatters

California Legislature paid trips. Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters; iStock

In summary

Members of the California Legislature took nearly $1 million worth of trips sponsored by interest groups in 2022. The California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy accounted for 40% of the travel spending. Over the years, some of its trips led to legislation.

After touring Portland and Seattle in 2020 to research waste disposal, state Sen. Ben Allen, a Santa Monica Democrat, successfully carried a measure to restrict which plastics can bear the triangular arrow recycling symbol.

Because of a study trip to Japan in November, Assemblymember Devon Mathis, a Visalia Republican, introduced a bill this year, which failed in committee, that would have required the state to procure more electricity from nuclear power plants instead of natural gas facilities.

And inspired by a visit to Portugal two years ago to learn about offshore wind farms, Assemblymember Laura Friedman, a Glendale Democrat, is pursuing legislation this session to streamline the approval of electrical infrastructure projects such as new transmission lines.

“I came back and sat down with the utilities and said, ‘What do I need to do so that it doesn’t take you two to five years to upgrade a substation to be able to put in charging, for instance, or to bring clean energy?’” Friedman told CalMatters. “That came directly out of that trip.”

All of these tours were organized and paid for by the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that for the past four decades has been taking legislators and other state officials on free trips to learn about policy issues — trips funded and attended by representatives of companies and interest groups with business before the state.

The foundation’s study tours and conferences — which take place everywhere from Napa to the Netherlands, Lake Tahoe to Iceland — are by far the biggest source of sponsored travel that lawmakers annually report. They accounted for about 40% of the nearly $1 million in trips that California legislators took in 2022, according to a CalMatters analysis of their statements of economic interest.

The foundation organizes several two-day policy conferences across California each year, but it gets more attention for its lengthier study trips to international destinations, including Mexico, Switzerland and France, Chile, Germany and the Czech Republic, Australia and Singapore over the past decade. 

Last year, 32 of the state’s 120 legislators, from both parties, attended at least one study trip or conference hosted by the foundation.

These events, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars per legislator for international trips, are funded through membership fees paid by CFEE’s board of directors — 92 somewhat strange bedfellows, including major corporations, oil companies, environmental groups, construction trade unions, public utilities and water districts.

The foundation does not disclose how much it charges board members, though some have publicly shared figures in the tens of thousands of dollars. According to CFEE, no single member contributes more than 2% of its annual budget, which was about $2 million in 2019, the most recent tax record that is publicly available.

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The trips serve as an influential tool for shaping policymaking at the state Capitol, with lawmakers returning from their far-flung travels with new perspectives and ideas on energy, the environment, water, transportation and housing. CFEE has tracked dozens of bills over the years that resulted directly from experiences on their trips, senior director of research and operations Wyatt Lundy told Waste Advantage magazine last fall. The foundation declined to share that list with CalMatters.

The sponsored travel also draws regular criticism for giving wealthy interest groups an intimate venue for relationship-building that is beyond the reach of most Californians.

“If I’m holding a seminar just to provide information and advocate for my policy views, I can do that without spending money,” said Sean McMorris of California Common Cause, a nonprofit that advocates for governance in the public interest. “I can invite them to a webinar or a conference that I don’t pay them to attend.”

But legislators who attend defend the study tours as educational and serious-minded, with a balance of perspectives from across industries.

“Don’t go on a CFEE trip if you don’t want to see factories and infrastructure,” Friedman said.

Jay Hansen, president and CEO of the foundation, declined an interview request. In an email, he stressed that the trips are not designed to pitch legislation, but rather to help lawmakers “better understand complex issues, witness best practices, and contemplate policy implications.”

“CFEE does not create public policy; we do not craft bills or get involved in legislative debates in or outside of the Capitol,” Hansen wrote. “We hope that our work will lead to specific policy advances — but the process of making legislation will be a matter taken up by legislators.”

Unifying political foes

Created in 1979 by labor economist Don Vial and former Gov. Pat Brown, among others, to focus on modernizing the state’s economy and infrastructure, the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy brings together people who might not normally be at the same political table.

Groups that spend a lot of time and money fighting each other often sit side by side — the vice chairpersons of the board are Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association, which represents the oil industry, and Katelyn Roedner Sutter, the California state director for the Environmental Defense Fund. Both declined interview requests, as did board secretary Curt Augustine, senior director of state affairs for the Alliance of Automotive Innovation.

In an email, Robert Balgenorth, a former president of the State Building and Construction Trades Council who serves as the chairperson of CFEE’s board of directors, said the foundation proves “the value of bringing together a diverse set of leaders to explore best practices and solutions to some of California’s most vexing environmental and economic challenges.”

“I firmly believe California is well served by this approach,” he wrote, “a mutual recognition that California succeeds when people, organizations, and political partisans look past their differences and come together with an open mind about our challenges and opportunities.”

The organizations on the board do not plan the conferences or study trips — “CFEE staff is entrusted to organize and conduct all CFEE events independently of any single member, industry, policy direction or area of concern,” Hansen wrote — but they do help shape the foundation’s focus and send representatives to its events.

The Sacramento Municipal Utility District has been part of CFEE since 2009 and currently pays $38,000 for its annual membership. Laura Lewis, chief legal officer and general counsel for the community-owned utility, serves as the treasurer of the board and has participated in two study trips since joining in 2017.

“CFEE allows us the opportunity to engage in thoughtful dialogue with key stakeholders so that we can understand different perspectives and foster collaborative partnerships” as the utility pursues “an ambitious goal to eliminate carbon emissions from our power supply by 2030,” Lewis wrote in an email. “It enables us to educate and align policymakers and other regional leaders on clean energy efforts that provide environmental benefits, drive inclusive economic development, and improve the quality of life for all.”

Long days, packed schedules

The invitation-only foreign trips, which take place once or twice a year, feature packed schedules of presentations, panels, and on-site tours led by local officials and industry representatives. Days can start at “7 a.m. and you have to be on time until late at night,” said Sen. Lena Gonzalez, a Long Beach Democrat who went to Iceland and Japan last year.

Attendees said they travel alongside the foundation’s board members, with meals and bus rides often turning into deep policy discussions or even debates between opposing interests. There is also occasional sightseeing and limited free time that lawmakers said allows them to process what they’ve been learning about.

An agenda provided by CFEE for its most recent study trip to Denmark last month with 10 legislators showed receptions with the U.S. ambassador and Danish officials; tours of water treatment, heating and biogas facilities and an offshore wind farm; and a day of free time during the weeklong visit.

Trip delegations are deliberately diverse, Hansen said, drawing veteran and rookie lawmakers from across the political spectrum and the state, and about 15 to 20 board members from across industries, depending on the topic of the tour. While legislators must disclose when they accept sponsored travel, the foundation refuses to say which board members attend the trips.

Legislators said the trips are useful because they see projects and technology up close that they might not have access to in California, which can change their opinion on policy. Gonzalez revised her plans to extend the state’s expiring clean transportation program because of what she saw in Japan, introducing a bill this year to prioritize funding for decarbonizing medium- and heavy-duty transportation sectors such as freight and shipping.

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Friedman said she attended the trip to Portugal two years ago because she was working on a bill at the time promoting offshore wind energy and she wanted to see turbines in person.

“How can I tell communities that they should have this, how can I go out and try to streamline approvals, without knowing what the impacts are going to be physically?” she said.

Friedman, who leads the Assembly transportation committee, also went to Japan in November to learn more about how the country finances its world-famous bullet train. During her free time, she rode the public transit system and explored the train stations, with their shops and restaurants that draw even non-commuters. She said it gave her an “invaluable” understanding of why public transit is such a hub of civic life in Japan that she never could have learned from a PowerPoint presentation.

Mathis said the relationships he has forged — including with Democratic legislators and with officials in the Newsom administration whom he might otherwise not have met — have been the greatest benefit. His connection with California Transportation Secretary Toks Omishakin during the Japan trip last year recently came in handy as Mathis’ Central Valley district flooded from heavy winter rainstorms.

“There was a bunch of high-speed rail dirt down there that we needed to get a hold of to set up an egress route,” Mathis said. “I was able to call him from my cell phone. I sent him a little video like, ‘Hey, bro, there’s dirt behind me I need.’ Right? And within three hours, things are moving.”

Yet traveling alongside executives from groups that regularly lobby the Legislature, attendees are keenly aware they are not far removed from the routine advocacy of Sacramento. Someone in the room always has a particular perspective to share.

Gonzalez said she was surprised to be invited on the trips, despite being chairperson of the Senate transportation committee, in part because of previous legislative fights she has had with oil companies, several of which are on the board.

“Honestly, I don’t know why they would invite someone like me,” she said. “I think people would want to say, ‘With this member, we want our return on investment,’ right? And I don’t know that I provide that in many senses.”

The appearance of improper influence

The opportunity for influence-peddling on foundation study trips has generated controversy for nearly as long as they have existed — decades of criticism from government transparency groups about privileged access to elected officials and journalistic investigations into what happens beyond the public eye. On occasion, they even filter into contentious campaigns, becoming a way for candidates to hit their opponents for ties to special interests.

Critics complain that the sponsored travel amounts to unofficial lobbying, with organizations able to buy precious time with elected officials that others cannot afford, on luxurious tours whose agendas they set. 

Even if the goal is not a specific bill or regulation, attendees are building a familiarity that can serve them down the line, argues McMorris of California Common Cause.

“If a friend comes to you and asks for help, you’re much more inclined to help them than a stranger,” he said. “So now when you do want to sit down and ask for a favor from this politician, they’re under no obligation to do the favor for you. But it’s human nature, I think, for most of us to seriously listen to someone who is a friend or an acquaintance.”

In at least one instance, the concerns turned out to be justified. During a 2013 trip to Poland hosted by CFEE, then-California Public Utilities Commission President Michael Peevey secretly met with an executive of Southern California Edison to discuss apportioning costs for the shutdown of the San Onofre nuclear power plant. Materials from the undisclosed meeting were discovered during a search of Peevey’s home while he was under investigation by the state for improper communications with the utilities he regulated, though potential criminal charges were never brought.

The state auditor later dinged the utilities commission for allowing its board members to travel at the foundation’s expense, creating “the appearance of improper influence” in its decisions.

A handful of changes over the years have tightened oversight of sponsored travel. In 2010, the California Fair Political Practices Commission approved a rule limiting the ability of third parties to directly pay for public officials’ travel costs, though it continued to allow the general contributions to nonprofits that fund study trips. Five years later, then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill requiring organizations that sponsor travel for elected officials to disclose their major donors and politicians to report the destinations of the trips they accept.

Then-Sen. Jerry Hill, a San Mateo Democrat who served in the Legislature from 2008 to 2020, carried the measure. He said he grew more concerned about sponsored travel after the PG&E pipeline explosion in his district in 2010, which led to a series of revelations about Peevey’s close relationship and extensive travel with companies regulated by the public utilities commission.

“The coziness that’s created by some of these trips” is “very palpable and really has a long-term effect,” Hill said. “Some legislators, I found that they looked forward to that opportunity, whether it had educational value or not. It was a free trip, a junket. And that is where I think it’s harmful, because then you look to the funders of those trips and become somewhat dependent on them.”

He did not want to ban sponsored travel, however, and sought instead to increase transparency around funders and attendees because, Hill said, “I do believe there is some educational benefit derived from a trip or a conference.”

Who should pick up the tab?

Legislators who attend the foundation study tours point out that the groups that sponsor the trips also have access to them in Sacramento, whether by requesting meetings in their offices or at fundraisers. Allen said that, as a legislator, many of his daily conversations are with people who want something from him, be it advocates, constituents, unions or corporations.

“It’s not like you’re going and they have this secret agenda that they’re going to brainwash you on,” agreed Mathis, who argues that, away from the “bubble” of Sacramento, there are actually more in-depth and candid policy discussions than what can happen during committee hearings, with opponents who would not usually connect exposed to each other’s viewpoints.

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Mathis defended the presence of groups that have business before the Legislature because it allows attendees to learn from experts, ask tough questions and work through issues ahead of time before introducing bills. He said he encourages his Republican colleagues to attend the trips and events because it gives the minority party, which is often sidelined at the Capitol, a chance to have a say on important issues.

“If you want to attack me for being part of the discussion, how stupid is that? You don’t want your legislator to be part of the discussion?” he said. “If you look at my legislative success record compared to other people who don’t go on these things, I think it speaks volumes.”

Several lawmakers said the study trips are so valuable, inspiring new perspectives on critical policy and bill ideas, that they should be a regular part of the legislative process, paid for by the state. This does happen on occasion, with working groups from the Senate or Assembly using taxpayer funds to travel abroad to study an issue.

“If we’re running the fourth-largest economy in the world, we should be out in the world also, developing relationships with other nations,” Friedman said. “It should be a required part of our job. I think the state should support it. We don’t. You know, we have to turn to the private sector.”

Gonzalez said it was “very unusual” that the trips are not publicly funded. She said she met officials in Iceland and Japan who “were kind of stunned, like, this is not government paid-for, and you’ve got all these industries here.”

But not everyone is so sure. Allen said he does not believe taxpayers would approve of paying for legislators to travel across the world, even if it is to learn from best practices.

Mathis prefers that the trips continue to be privately funded, because it not only saves taxpayer money, but he said it also enables a more independent agenda with a greater diversity of perspectives included.

“So that’s a bigger question for the public: Do you want us to spend tax dollars to go?” he said. “And then it’s going to be based upon what the majority party wants you to see, versus a bigger conversation.”

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