Lawmakers’ paid-for jaunts prompt new disclosure bill

Lawmakers’ paid-for jaunts prompt new disclosure bill

Jerry HillYear in and year out, California lawmakers take advantage of one area where freebees are legal: travel. In 2013, they racked up more than half a million dollars in trips subsidized by “foreign governments, foundations fueled by corporate and labor money and nonprofits tied to specific industries,” according to the Sacramento Bee. The outlay represents a rise of over $200,000 from the previous year’s expenditures.

This election year, however, that longstanding habit may be in for a change. State Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, wants to ensure that nonprofits springing for legislators’ travel disclose their donors — not only to California’s Fair Political Practices Commission, but to the public at large. As the Los Angeles Times reports, Senate Bill 831 aims to prevent undue influence from flourishing under cover of the current broadly-tailored rules.

Although Hill’s reforms would require a two-thirds majority of both houses of the Legislature to pass, a populist turn among lawmakers from both parties could keep interest in the bill alive.

This isn’t the first time free travel has arisen as a legislative concern. In a 2011 report, the Bee revealed how travel costs for all but one of the state’s 12 Assembly committees went mostly to personal aides. In its yearly expenditure report, the Assembly had claimed that most travel funds went toward hearings that served the public interest.

That raised the ire of liberal-leaning groups such as Consumer Watchdog. But small-government advocates also have reason to support stricter reporting and transparency measures.

Travel

In a Los Angeles Times investigation of gifts disclosed this year, Republicans and Democrats ran up a lengthy list, with travel playing a notable role. On one trip to Europe that included members of both parties, $710 in meals and transportation was reported by State Sen. Mark Wyland, R-Escondido. On others, the Times specifically cited a number of Democrats.

Burgeoning scandals among state Democrats give Republicans an added interest in considering Hill’s legislation more seriously. The Associated Press notes that state Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, reported “a $256 golf game paid for by the nonprofit group Californians for Diversity.” Calderon, fighting federal bribery charges, allegedly told undercover FBI agents to bribe the organization. According to the Associated Press, Californians for Diversity paid $13,000 to the consulting firm run by Calderon’s brother Thomas, the former Assemblyman.

Watchdog groups and activists face a particularly high level of difficulty in monitoring travel gifts before the opportunity for corruption sets in. As the California government code indicates, an “expenditure associated with holding office is within the lawful execution of the trust imposed by Section 89510 if it is reasonably related to a legislative or governmental purpose.” In practice, that generous standard has translated into theoretically unlimited amounts of travel, and substantial reimbursements for events that require it.

Foreign trips

Focusing on nonprofit expenditures wouldn’t cover the full extent of lawmakers’ most frequent sources of free travel. In addition to privately funded foundations, foreign governments often subsidize overseas trips. According to the Times, Gov. Jerry Brown flew to China on the Bay Area Council’s dime, while Armenia’s National Assembly covered the cost of a visit from Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, D-Los Angeles.

Now, as attention continues to build around the practice of accepting paid-for travel, legislators may find it easier to support heightened disclosure requirements than to oppose them. It’s unlikely that the most common kinds of trips and subsidies would face a wave of public disapproval.

Rather than aggravating the state’s increasingly disaffected electorate, Republicans and Democrats might see the benefit of moving forward with Hill’s bill in an effort to clear the travel issue from reformers’ agendas before the election season gets further underway.

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