What the public doesn’t know about California legislative travel
Japan, Portugal, Switzerland — this is just a small sample of the many far-flung locations where California legislators travel, paid for by interest groups and nonprofit organizations. For the sake of transparency, lawmakers must submit trip reports to the Fair Political Practices Commission every year.
The groups that pay for the travel, on the other hand? Not so much.
As CalMatters’ politics reporter Alexei Koseff and data journalist Jeremia Kimelman explain, in the seven years since a state law took effect that required trip organizers to disclose the major donors who travel with elected officials, only two organizations have filed reports.
The nonprofits — often funded by corporations, unions and industry groups that lobby the Legislature and state agencies — sometimes voluntarily share lists of donors. But they’re not required to reveal how much money they receive and from whom.
The author of the original bill, former state Sen. Jerry Hill, said he crafted qualifications that he believed major trip organizers would easily meet, compelling them to disclose more information to the public:
- Travel gifts that total more than $10,000, or at least $5,000 to a single official, in a given year.
- Spending for travel related to elected officials makes up at least one-third of the organization’s total expenses.
But when Alexei and Jeremia reached out to the remaining 14 out of 16 organizations that met the first benchmark about why they did not disclose their major donors who went on the trips on a specific form, they received various reasons: Some asserted they didn’t meet the second requirement to file the forms; some said they were exempt; others didn’t respond at all.
Two organizations, the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy and the Independent Voter Project, are cited specifically by Hill as inspirations for the 2015 law, but both told CalMatters they had never met the one-third of total expenses threshold.
- Hill, to CalMatters: “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.”
The Fair Political Practices Commission is the watchdog group that’s responsible for enforcing the law, but cannot say if organizations are failing to comply. The commission has never clarified potentially ambiguous language in the rules, and investigates queries primarily if it receives a complaint, though none have been filed.
- Jay Wierenga, a spokesperson for the commission, in an email: “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.”
A reminder: These trips are legal. Legislators can accept unlimited free travel as long as trips are related to policy issues, or they plan on giving a speech or participate in a panel.
More public information: CalMatters data journalist Jeremia Kimelman has built a database of the economic interest forms that legislators must file. You can look up information about some of their financial assets and the gifts they accept, as well as their paid trips. Look at the data here.
More honors for CalMatters: The California News Publishers Association announced Wednesday that CalMatters reporter Rachel Becker has won second place in 2022 environment coverage among the state’s largest digital news sites for her stories on water issues that the judge called “a road map to helping fix some of our most vexing issues.”
CalMatters reporter Kristen Hwang won third place in health coverage, including for a story on surging syphilis rates. And CalMatters reporter Mikhail Zinshteyn and College Journalism Network fellow Michealla Huck were awarded third place in coverage of youth and education for a series on low graduation rates for Black students at California State University.
Other Stories You Should Know
1 A big day for 1,000 bills
Bills at the Legislature can get shelved in many different ways, and all times of the session. But today, lots of bills will get killed, very quickly.
Yes, it’s “suspense file” time.
There are more than 600 measures up before the Assembly appropriations committee, plus nearly 420 whose fate is in the hands of the Senate appropriations committee.
The committees are doing final fiscal reviews of bills with more than negligible cost to the state before they go to each full chamber for a vote. A similar process will happen in August with bills passed by the other house.
The vast majority of bills will survive today’s gauntlet and continue through the lawmaking process. At this time last session, more than 700 out of nearly 1,000 lived to see another day. But it’s possible, even likely, that some high-profile bills will get sidelined.
The CalMatters team will be monitoring the hearings and will report on the results. So check back today.
On Wednesday, Democrats Sen. Lola Smallwood-Cuevas from Los Angeles and Assemblymember Brian Maienschein from San Diego were joined by labor advocates and grocery and pharmacy workers to promote a package of bills at the Capitol — two of which await their fate in the suspense file.
After grocery giants Kroger and Albertsons announced their multi-billion dollar merger in October, one analysis estimated that grocery store workers will lose $300 million in wages a year. In response, lawmakers introduced legislation that would expand rights for grocery employees:
- AB 647 would require that when a company takes control of a store in a merger, it must hire from a list of that store’s employees for 120 days, up from 90 days.
- AB 853 would require grocery or drug-retail companies to give the attorney general 180 days notice before finalizing a proposed merger.
2 Inmate classes disrupted by prison closings
In his effort to remake California’s prisons, Gov. Gavin Newsom has declared a moratorium on executions and stated intentions to transform San Quentin State Prison into a rehabilitation center. Meanwhile, the California Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections is shutting down a handful of prisons while downsizing others.
But for more than 1,500 California prisoners who could have their college education disrupted by these closures, their futures remain uncertain.
As detailed by CalMatters’ community college reporter Adam Echelman, prisoners enrolled in college benefit beyond just a degree — they can chip off time from their sentences. Prison education also reduces recidivism rates.
Prisoners affected by closures may get transferred to a new prison but the courses and credits available may not line up with the classes they were taking, leaving some students a few credits shy of a degree. They may then take an incomplete or drop out.
In a statement to CalMatters, the corrections department said it’s committed to preventing “academic disruption,” and cites its Rising Scholars Network initiative. But the department also said that it’s the responsibility of the community colleges to make sure students’ credits transfer, and the state can help “if needed.”
Community colleges argue that there’s no coordinated system among colleges to communicate about where students transfer, and because of privacy laws, colleges need a student’s written consent before they can communicate with one another.
The president of Palo Verde College, says transfers will have a terrible impact on students. The college expects to lose about 520 students, or 10% of its student body, when a nearby prison closes in 2025.
- Don Wallace: “Even among people that are not incarcerated, when they have to change from one college to another or they move from a community college to a four-year university, those are points where people quit.”
CalMatters columnist Jim Newton: Why are L.A. politicians reacting far less urgently to the Hollywood writers’ strike than to school teachers’ walkout?
Other things worth your time
Newsom chides House Speaker McCarthy over California water money // Politico
Colorado River talks near deal as CA, AZ and NV agree to conserve water // Washington Post
CDC warns of an Mpox rebound outbreak this summer // Los Angeles Times
Court changes rule that gun-control groups said allowed ‘judge shopping’ // The San Diego Union-Tribune
Larry Elder fined for failing to disclose income during 2021 recall campaign // Los Angeles Times
State Supreme Court will hear People’s Park housing case // San Francisco Chronicle
San Jose mayor seeks to use homelessness funds for temporary shelter, instead of permanent housing // KQED
Chevron prepares Kern County oil fields for flooding // Los Angeles Times
Fresno County struggles to find permanent home for state-issued trailers meant for homeless // KVPR
SF dystopia: Two Black men fighting to the death over Walgreens snacks // Mission Local
Details emerge on why police say dad drove Tesla off cliff // San Francisco Chronicle
LA dispensaries selling ‘magic mushrooms’ as state weighs decriminalizing psychedelics // Los Angeles Times
County will pay $100K to renew license for Madera Community Hospital // The Fresno Bee
Santa Clara County special ed teachers protest safety concerns // San Jose Spotlight
Democrats, environmentalists clash over a bill to save CA’s sequoias // The Washington Post