CA Common Cause: State lawmakers accepted $844,000 in gifts in 2013

Let the good times roll!

California lawmakers accepted $844,000 in gifts in 2013 — the majority of which came from special interest groups that routinely lobby the state Legislature.

According to a new report released by the good-government group California Common Cause, gifts to elected state representatives included $580,000 in travel payments, more than $100,000 in meals and receptions and $65,500 for tickets to entertainment and sporting events.

“With ongoing federal investigations into potential ethics violations by several state lawmakers, this report highlights that there are many legal channels through which special interests exert their influence in Sacramento,” Kathay Feng, executive director of CA Common Cause, said in a press release.

More than 2,700 gifts reported in 2013

Each state lawmakers received, on average, $600 worth of gifts every month. To put that number into perspective, it’s three times the freebies the average recipient of food stamps receives in California. According to the California Department of Social Services, “The average amount of CalFresh benefits received per household is about $200 per month.”

In total, state lawmakers reported more than 2,700 individual gifts in 2013, ranging from a $1.50 bottle of Coke to a $15,782 trip to Armenia. While meals were the most common item, the largest payments were for travel to exotic locations and accommodation in luxury hotels. Among the more unique gifts were:

  • $439 in tickets to a Drake concert given by the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Authority to Assemblyman Rob Bonta, D-Oakland;
  • $216 in nail polish given by the Personal Care Products Association to then-Senator Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, who is facing charges of corruption;
  • $160 worth of golf fees and clubs given by the California Foundation on Education and the Environment to state Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Ceres;
  • $130 in spa services given by the California Legislative Black Caucus Policy Institute to state Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Culver City;
  • $115 in seafood given by the Monterey Bay Aquarium Foundation to Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer, D-Los Angeles.

Gifts increasing in number and value

capitolFrontCA Common Cause says both the number and value of gifts increased dramatically in the past year. According to their report, state elected officials accepted approximately $216,000 in gifts and travel payments, including $41,000 in hotels and lodging; $30,000 for tickets to entertainment and sporting events; and more than $100,000 for meals and receptions.

“While Californians across the state exchange gifts this month in celebration of the holidays, its worth taking a minute to reflect on the year-round, not-so-secret Santa happening in the state Capitol,” said Sarah Swanbeck, policy and legislative affairs advocate for CA Common Cause. “What we’re seing is a growing trend in both the number of gifts and the total value of those gifts given by powerful special interest groups to state lawmakers.”

To compile its report, the group analyzed publicly available financial disclosure reports, which are filed annually with the Fair Political Practices Commission. That means the figures are likely to be lower than the actual total. State law does not require gifts under $50 in value to be reported on these Statement of Economic Interest forms. Financial disclosure reports for 2014 won’t be available until March 1.

Top Recipients of Gifts in 2013

John_Pérez_2011Legislative leaders topped the list of gift recipients in 2013, with former Speaker of the Assembly John A. Perez, D-Los Angeles, taking home nearly $38,000 in gifts and perks. The Top 10 recipients, according to the report:

  1. Assemblyman John A. Perez: $37,823;
  2. Sen. Ricardo Lara: $32,492;
  3. Sen. Anthony Cannella: $26,644;
  4. Assemblyman Steven Bradford: $25,408;
  5. Assemblyman Travis Allen: $23,118;
  6. Sen. Kevin de Leon: $22,910;
  7. Assemblyman Scott Wilk: $21,780;
  8. Assemblywoman Connie Conway: $20,675;
  9. Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia: $20,600;
  10. Assemblywoman Kristin Olsen: $17,603.

All of the state lawmakers listed in the Top 10 of gift recipients utilized the longstanding loophole that allows elected officials to circumvent the state’s $440 gift limit.

Legislators gone wild on junkets

State officials can accept gifts that exceed the state’s gift limit if it is for travel-related expenses in conjunction with a speech or conference. Special interest groups routinely take advantage of this loophole by organizing “conferences” in exotic locales. In 2013, the two biggest donors helped state lawmakers jet off to Scandinavia, Taiwan and Maui, courtesy of this loophole.

The biggest gift-giver to state lawmakers was the California Foundation on the Environment & Economy, which spent $161,893 in travel-related gifts. It was followed by the Independent Voter Project, which spent $38,080 in 2013.

Fairmont kea laniFounded by former Assemblyman Steve Peace, the IVP hosts a notorious annual conference in Maui. Eighteen state lawmakers attended the group’s 2013 conference, held at the luxurious Fairmont Kea Lani, “Hawaii’s only all-suite and villa luxury oceanfront resort.”

The travel gift loophole has been criticized by newspapers and ethics experts.

“Almost all of this largesse came courtesy of people and organizations with business before the Legislature,” the Press-Democrat recently editorialized. “With all the junkets and outings, it’s a wonder they find time for any business.”

Sacramento: Only place there’s still a free lunch

While travel-related gifts accounted for nearly 70 percent of the dollar amount, the most frequent gift given to legislators in 2013 was a free lunch. That’s gifts of meals and drinks; and attendance at receptions, events and hospitality suites.

In the area of free meals, the California Democratic Party donated more than any other group, according to CA Common Cause. The state party spent nearly $10,000 to wine and dine its members.

Top 10 gift-givers

The top 10 gift-givers in 2013 were:

  1. California Foundation on the Environment & Economy: $161,893;
  2. Independent Voter Project: $38,080;
  3. Consulate General of the Republic of Armenia: $25,173;
  4. State Legislative Leaders Foundation: $24,027;
  5. Pacific Policy Research Foundation: $22,015;
  6. Taipai Economic and Cultural Office: $32,533;
  7. California Issues Forum: $18,902;
  8. The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles: $17,989;
  9. American Israel Foundation: $12,737;
  10. California Democratic Party: $10,556.

This article was originally published at

CA GOP Eyes Special State Senate Election

Aside from preventing Democrats from again nabbing two-thirds supermajorities in the California Legislature, the Nov. 4 national GOP electoral wave did little to change the political dynamic here. With two years to go before the 2016 elections, Golden State Republicans have gained an opportunity — though not a lot of time — to focus on the keys to a stronger performance.

Between now and then, the California GOP may be able to use focus groups and internal polls to test certain themes, issues and talking points. Nevertheless, elections have a special value in helping parties refine their message and build momentum.

And until 2016, the most important election in the state for Republicans may well be the special election to replace Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord, in the state Senate. Gov. Jerry Brown will set a date for the election soon after DeSaulnier officially resigns from his current office.

Musical chairs

On Election Day, Nov. 4, DeSaulnier prevailed in his effort to replace retiring Rep. George Miller in the 11th Congressional District. After his victory, DeSaulnier took pains to point out that “civic illiteracy and complacency” had nonetheless gotten him down — in other words, low turnout.

Although depressed voting numbers didn’t hurt DeSaulnier, he understood as well as any California Democrat that Republicans in the state often benefit from the phenomenon. Sure enough, in the race to replace him, Republicans may be competitive for that reason as well as others.

That’s why Mark Meuser — a Republican attorney from Walnut Creek and no stranger to DeSaulnier — has jumped into the race, announcing recently he hopes to prevail in the special election for the soon-to-be-vacant 7th state Senate District seat, which encompasses most of Contra Costa and Alameda counties.

As the Antioch Herald reported, Meuser’s campaign will likely focus around economic themes — not just jobs in the abstract, but the dynamism of small business and innovation. “The spirit of entrepreneurs in California is as strong today as it was during the gold rush,” Meuser announced on his campaign site. “It needs an advocate in Sacramento, and Meuser wants to be that advocate. Ensuring that our communities stay strong — and grow stronger — requires a long-term vision for future generations, and Meuser has that vision.”

Meuser is best known as the Republican who ran for that same seat in 2012, losing to DeSaulnier. Then, Meuser won 38.5 percent of the vote, with DeSaulnier getting 61.5 percent. This time around, expectations have changed — in part because more than one Democrat also is angling for the seat, and there will be no incumbent.

Healthy competition

As the Contra Costa Times reported, two well known and influential Bay Area Democrats are expected to throw their hats in the ring: re-elected Assemblywoman Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, and term-limited Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan, D-Alamo. With the state Capitol teeming with Democrats drawn from the well-to-do power corridor between Sacramento and San Francisco, there are more ambitious politicians than there are elective offices for them to fill.

Bonilla and Buchanan are both credible candidates sure to appeal to voting Democrats. It is less clear, however, whether either has the ability to turn out Democrats in large enough numbers to deal another loss to Meuser — particularly if they have to campaign against one another, and not just Meuser. According to California law, if no candidate gets 50 percent-plus-one of the vote, a runoff election then is held.

As the Antioch Herald also reported, both Democrats will be influenced in their decision-making by California’s particular rules restricting length of terms in office. Whether serving in the Assembly or state Senate, legislators are capped at a total of 12 years in both houses, according to Proposition 28, which voters approved in 2012. But it only applies to those elected to office after its passage.

Yet “because Bonilla was elected before June 5, 2012, she is restricted by the previous term limits, approved in 1990, which limited legislators to three terms in the State Assembly and two terms in the State Senate. Since the election will be past the half-way point in DeSaulnier’s term, if elected, she will serve less than two years, allowing her two more full terms for a total of close to 10 years. The same would apply to Assemblywoman Joan Buchanan.”

Looking forward

The 7th is not the only state Senate District soon to be up for grabs as a result of a special election. Similar circumstances have also created upcoming vacancies in the 21st District and the 37th District, where Republican state Sens. Steve Knight and Mimi Walters, respectively, were elected to the U.S. Congress. No date for an election has been set. But these are seats in heavily Republican districts, so the makeup of the Senate won’t change.

And on Dec. 9, an election will be held to replace Democratic state Sen. Rod Wright in Senate District 35. He resigned after being convicted in a corruption scandal. If necessary, a Feb. 10, 2015 runoff will be held. According to Ballotpedia, “Louis L. Dominguez (D), Isadore Hall, III (D), Hector Serrano (D) and James Spencer (R) will face off.” As Wright got 76.5 percent of the vote to 23.5 percent for Republican Charlotte A. Svolos in the 2012 election, one of the Democrats is almost assured of victory, meaning this race also won’t change the party makeup of the Senate.

Given the familiar faces and competing ambitions at work in the presumptive 7th District race, however, Republicans may likely be tempted to use Meuser’s and the other two campaigns to road-test strategies that could pay dividends in 2016. If races can be targeted where Democrats compete, turnout is low, and seasoned Republican candidates can deliver a well-tailored message, the California GOP could see a better return on its investments. However, with 2016 being a presidential election year, turnout likely will be high, which would benefit Democrats.

Ultimately, the success of such an approach could hinge on whether the Nov. 4 elections did not quite capture the full extent of voter frustration with Democrats; and on how President Obama’s recent amnesty plays out among all groups of voters.

This article was originally published by

California’s New Coalitions Defy Conventional Definitions

The 2014 mid-term elections will be remembered for many things – pioneering use of information technology to comprehensively profile and micro-target voters, escalating use of polarizing rhetoric, historically low levels of voter turnout, and historic records in total spending. In California, in spite of all this money and technology – or perhaps because of it – the political landscape is probably not going to change very much this time around. But appearances can be deceiving. While Democrats will still control California’s state legislature and nearly all of California’s large cities and urban counties, new fault lines are forming within California’s electorate that defy conventional definitions of Republican and Democrat, or conservative and liberal.

Because as it is, California’s schools are failing, businesses and middle-income residents are fleeing, and the cost of living is the highest in America. Three powerful groups benefit from and perpetuate this arrangement with their money and their votes:  Wealthy individuals and crony capitalists, unionized public sector workers, and low-income residents who have become entirely dependent on government and are susceptible to their rhetoric. The terms of this alliance are financially unsustainable and even now, they harm low income residents more than they help them. It will crack as soon as a viable opposition coalesces. And that is happening.

Here are examples of how coalitions are forming that defy conventional definitions of Republican or Democrat, conservative or liberal:

(1)  Financial sustainability is a bipartisan issue.

California’s cities and counties, despite revenues from an unsustainable asset bubble that has bought them time, are on a collision course with financial insolvency. This reality has already confronted every big city mayor in California. Some, including Democrats like San Jose’s courageous mayor Chuck Reed, are trying to enact reforms to save their cities. Over 80% of the non-federal government spending in California is at the local level, and sooner or later, liberals and conservatives are going to join together to demand realistic financial reforms to restore financial health to California’s public institutions.

(2)  Quality public schools is a bipartisan issue.

California’s public schools will not be improved by spending more money, they will be improved by making fundamental reforms to how schools and school districts are managed. The Vergara lawsuit, funded almost entirely by conscientious Democrats, proves how committed everyone is to restoring accountability to public education. The success of charter schools proves that superior educational outcomes can be had for less money than is currently made available to public schools.

(3)  The mission of public sector unions is inherently in conflict with the public interest.

Both of the examples just mentioned – quality education and financial health – are the priority of any civic minded private citizen, but are not the priority of the public sector unions who control California politics. The reason California’s schools are failing is because of union work rules that prevent innovation and accountability. The reason California’s government finances are perennially challenged is because for decades, public sector unions have pressured politicians to grant pay and benefit increases that have become unfair and unaffordable.

(4)  Private sector unions are fundamentally different from public sector unions.

The growing rift within Democrats, and the growing consensus among all California voters, is based on a fundamental fact: Criticizing, or even abolishing, public sector unions does NOT represent an attempt at a broader war on labor, working people, or private sector unions. There are serious issues relating to the role and optimal regulations for private sector unions, but they play a legitimate, vital part in American society. Public sector unions, on the other hand, should be abolished.

(5)  No party, platform, or person has all the answers.

This is not a new reality, but today in California it is being increasingly recognized by reformers across the political spectrum. And there is a new, unifying theme – the need for public sector union reform, fostered through education reform and fiscal reform. While politicians and citizens may disagree over the size of government and the role of government, they are agreeing, more than ever, that government unions have skewed this debate and taken options away. Can we improve and enhance government services, or invest in ambitious new infrastructure projects? No, because tax revenue must pay over-market compensation to government workers. Can we streamline and modernize a government agency or effectively manage a school? No, because of union work rules.

New coalitions are forming that will not accept failing schools, or cities and counties in a perpetual state of financial crisis. They will fight together for educational excellence and fiscal health. And because nothing matters more than our children and our ability to earn a living, they will recognize the unpleasant truth – to restore public education and public finance requires fighting public sector unions.

In California, the outcome of the 2014 election is sadly predictable. But change is coming.

Ed Ring is the executive director of the California Policy Center.

Jerry Brown vetoes California political ethics bills

From the Sacramento Bee:

Rejecting major parts of an ethics package in a year tainted by scandal, Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday vetoed legislation that would have required more campaign finance disclosure and reduced the value of gifts lobbyists can give state officials.

In a message accompanying one of three ethics-related vetoes, Brown criticized legislation he said would needlessly make existing regulations more complex.

“Proper disclosure, as already provided by law, should be sufficient to guard against undue influence,” he wrote.

Senate Bill 1443, by Sen. Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, would have…