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This law should reveal who’s paying for California legislators’ travel. It’s only been used twice

This story appeared on Calmatters

Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters; iStock

In summary

A 2015 law to bring more transparency to paid trips for California legislators has led to only two disclosure forms being filed by the sponsoring groups. The law’s author says it is being wrongly ignored.

After years of controversy over state legislators taking trips paid by interest groups, California in 2015 adopted a law intended to bring more transparency to sponsored travel.

Senate Bill 21 requires trip organizers to annually disclose any major donors who travel alongside elected officials, taking aim at the secrecy that often surrounds these policy conferences and international study tours.

Yet in the seven years since the law took effect, disclosure forms have been filed for only two events — despite legislators reporting millions of dollars in sponsored travel and dozens of trips during that period. One form was filed last year and the second only after CalMatters made inquiries. 

It’s unclear exactly why the disclosure has been such a failure.

Former state Sen. Jerry Hill, the San Mateo Democrat who pushed for the law, said he was surprised by its infrequent use. He said he crafted qualifications that he believed major travel sponsors would easily meet, requiring them to share more information with the public about who is paying for legislators’ travel — but, in hindsight, the language about when they have to file may not have been specific enough.

Many groups, including two whom Hill cited in arguments for the law, contend that they do not meet the eligibility criteria laid out in the measure, even as they spend tens of thousands of dollars or more to take legislators to far-flung locations.

“It looks like it’s being interpreted in the most favorable light for the nonprofits, and they are looking at that as a way of getting around it,” Hill told CalMatters.

If that is the case, he added, legislators should update the language to ensure the intent is clear.

“It’s frustrating,” he said. “It is law and it should be followed. And it’s disappointing that some have used whatever reason they can find to not follow the law.”

If any organizations are out of compliance, the state’s political ethics watchdog, which is responsible for enforcement, cannot say. The Fair Political Practices Commission has never clarified potentially ambiguous language in the rules and it depends on filers to follow them, investigating primarily if it receives a complaint. None has ever been lodged.

Jay Wierenga, a spokesperson for the commission, wrote in an email that he did not know the specifics of the situation, but “in my experience most of the folks who deal with this are sophisticated enough and/or smart enough to follow the rules and hire legal counsel to make sure they’re following it.”

Different rules for trip sponsors

California law allows elected officials to accept unlimited free travel from a nonprofit organization, as long as the trip is related to policy issues or they are giving a speech or participating on a panel. Officials must report the travel as a gift on their annual statements of economic interest filed with the Fair Political Practices Commission — and, because of the same 2015 law, disclose the destination.

But the nonprofits — often funded by corporations, unions and industry associations that lobby the Legislature and the state — do not have similar reporting requirements. Though some voluntarily share lists of donors, they are not obligated to reveal how much money they receive and from whom.

For nearly as long as these trips have been happening, they have generated criticism from opponents who believe they amount to unofficial lobbying, allowing interest groups to buy privileged access to lawmakers and regulators away from public scrutiny. 

Sen. Jerry Hill speaks in support of his bill SB 38, which would support volunteer firefighters if passed
Then-Sen. Jerry Hill speaks in the state Capitol. Photo by Anne Wernikoff for CalMatters

Hill said he grew more concerned after the 2010 PG&E pipeline explosion in his district that killed eight and destroyed a San Bruno neighborhood, which led to revelations about then-California Public Utilities Commission President Michael Peevey’s close relationship and extensive travel with companies regulated by the commission.

So the law Hill authored was meant to provide greater accountability for which interest groups are paying for travel and how these trips can serve as opportunities for influence-peddling. It requires “a nonprofit organization that regularly organizes and hosts travel for elected officials” to annually report any donors who gave more than $1,000 and also accompanied elected officials on any portion of a trip, if the group meets two criteria:

  • Travel gifts to elected officials in that year totaled more than $10,000, or at least $5,000 to a single official.
  • Spending for travel, study tours and conferences, conventions and meetings related to elected officials account for at least one-third of its total expenses, as reflected in its federal tax filings.

Over the past two years, 16 organizations exceeded the first threshold at least once, according to a CalMatters analysis of legislators’ statements of economic interest. Just two of them filed the travel sponsor disclosure, known as Form 807.

The California Problem Solvers Foundation, which supports a bipartisan legislative caucus, revealed that in 2021, the year it launched, representatives from the California Medical Association, Edison International, the Associated Builders & Contractors of California, PhARMA, Blue Shield of California, DaVita Inc., PG&E and Sempra Energy donated and attended its inaugural policy summit in Dana Point, alongside nine lawmakers.

The foundation, however, did not file the form again for last year, when it spent another $12,000 taking four legislators to a policy summit in Sonoma. A spokesperson, Nick Mirman, declined to comment.

The California Legislative Jewish Caucus Leadership Foundation, which spent more than $213,000 to take 14 legislators to Israel in July, said it wrongly forgot to submit a disclosure for the trip. 

After CalMatters reached out, a representative for the foundation said its compliance attorneys discovered the error while completing its taxes. She provided a Form 807 that the foundation planned to file, showing two donors that also traveled to Israel: the Koret Foundation Donor Advised Fund at Stanford University and the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles. The Fair Political Practices Commission confirmed Wednesday that it received the form.

Over the last week, CalMatters surveyed the 14 other groups about why they did not file the disclosure form.

  • Three asserted they did not meet the eligibility requirements of the law, but did not specify how in follow-up inquiries: the Governor’s Cup Foundation, which organizes an annual golf tournament in Pebble Beach; the Shared Energy Future Foundation, the charitable arm of the oil and natural gas industry; and The Climate Registry, which spent more than $37,600 to bring lawmakers to United Nations climate conferences in Scotland and Egypt over the past two years.
  • Two said they are trade associations, which are exempt from the law: the Association of California Life and Health Insurance Companies and the California Independent Petroleum Association.
  • Five did not respond to questions, despite repeated inquiries: the California Biotechnology Foundation, the California Latino Legislative Caucus Foundation, the Climate Action Reserve, the Council of State Governments-West and the Foundation for California’s Technology and Innovation Economy.
  • The California Environmental Voters Education Fund suggested that five lawmakers had incorrectly reported the organization as the sponsor of their travel to a United Nations biodiversity convention in Montreal, saying it had raised the money from another group called the Resources Legacy Fund.

Ambiguity in the law

A possible issue is how broadly to construe “activities with regard to elected officials,” as the law states, when determining expenses for the one-third of total spending threshold. Hill said his intent was for that calculation to cover the entire cost of trips and conferences attended by legislators, but nonprofits may be counting only their direct payments to lawmakers.

“Hindsight is 20/20, and if the nonprofits are using that as a way around following the law, that needs to be clarified or it needs to be enforced in a way that requires them to follow the law,” Hill said.

Wierenga said the Fair Political Practices Commission has no formal advice about how to complete the form because “nobody files them, so we’ve apparently never really been asked.”

Two prominent organizations mentioned by Hill at the time as inspirations for the 2015 law — the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy and the Independent Voter Project — told CalMatters they had never met the one-third of expenses threshold.

The California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy, which sends lawmakers to policy conferences across the state and on international study tours, is by far the biggest source of sponsored travel that lawmakers annually report. In 2022, the foundation accounted for about 40% of the nearly $1 million in trips that California legislators took, according to a CalMatters analysis published this month.

A tax filing for last year is not yet publicly available. But in 2019, for example, the foundation reported spending $423,114 on study travel projects and $385,949 on conferences, conventions and meetings — about 43% of its nearly $1.9 million in expenses. Other recent years have comparable figures.

Spokesperson PJ Johnston declined to explain how the foundation calculates its expenses under the criteria laid out by the disclosure law. In an email, he wrote that “your approach may not take into account the full provisions,” but did not elaborate.

“Addressing your ‘calculations’ is not our responsibility, that is not our burden,” he wrote. “Your ‘calculations’ are imbued with no official weight, verification or concurrence from any agency with jurisdiction.”

He added that the foundation has never received any questions or guidance from the Fair Political Practices Commission about the disclosure law.

“It’s frustrating. It is law and it should be followed. And it’s disappointing that some have used whatever reason they can find to not follow the law.”

Former state Sen. Jerry Hill, who pushed for the transparency law

Each November, the Independent Voter Project organizes a conference where dozens of legislators and corporate sponsors gather for a week of policy discussions and schmoozing at a luxury hotel in Maui. The event has long been a lightning rod for concerns about the close relationship between lawmakers and interest groups that have business before the Legislature.

Last year, the nonprofit spent $38,856 to bring 13 legislators to the Maui conference. But Dan Howle, the chairperson and executive chairman, said that event is a small fraction of the Independent Voter Project’s work — which also includes public education on the rights of no party preference voters and court challenges to laws restricting the participation of these voters in primary and general elections.

On its 2021 tax filing, the most recent that is publicly available, the Independent Voter Project reported spending $169,530 on conferences, conventions and meetings and $43,372 on travel and entertainment payments for public officials — just under a quarter of its $882,122 in total expenses for that year. Travel accounts for another $384,614 in spending, though it’s unclear whether those costs relate to “activities with regard to elected officials.”

Howle said the costs for the Maui conference — which include a dinner at the hotel restaurant, opening and closing receptions and the sponsored travel for legislators — are not as much as they may seem. His organization does not count hotel rooms for sponsors, which they pay for as part of their registration, curtailing spending that would qualify for the one-third threshold.

“We haven’t felt required to report it because we don’t reach that threshold,” Howle said. He said that the Independent Voter Project came to that conclusion after discussing the law with the Fair Political Practices Commission the year it took effect. The commission has issued no official advice.

A third organization, the California Issues Forum, also maintains that it hasn’t filed the form because it hasn’t spent enough to cross the disclosure threshold. Chris Tapio, a spokesperson, wrote in an email that the nonprofit’s “activities and expenditures have not met the statutory criteria” for filing a report.

The organization spent $15,634 to take 15 legislators to Napa, Los Angeles, and Marina Del Rey in 2022, according to lawmakers’ statements of economic interest, and $13,454 to take 13 legislators to La Jolla, Monterey and Lafayette in 2021.

Tax returns for those years are not yet publicly available. But in 2019, the organization reported spending $323,032 on conferences, conventions and meetings, and $15,072 on travel, accounting for about 27% of its nearly $1.3 million in expenses.

Yet in a separate category of the 2019 tax form, the California Issues Forum reported that it spent more than $1 million that year for seminars, meetings, and conferences that “brought experts, speakers and legislators together to educate each other on current issues” — or more than 80% of its total expenses.

Tapio said “that amount is inclusive of many expenses not pertinent to Form 807, such as grants, salaries, and postage.” He did not clarify what spending California Issues Forum does count under the disclosure law.

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