How California legislators got more than $1.4 million in travel and gifts in 2023

Last June, more than half of California’s lawmakers — Republicans and Democrats alike, with no particular ideological preference — attended a celebratory gala for new Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas. They left with a gift: A personally engraved box worth $85.94.

These gifts are documented in financial disclosures that elected officials in California have to file every March for the previous calendar year. The reports, officially called Form 700, provide insight into gifts, sponsored travel, plus any property they own and stocks they hold.

As part of the new Digital Democracy initiative, CalMatters has extracted the information from these reports into a series of spreadsheets that are accessible to the public and has analyzed them to give a glimpse into potential financial conflicts of interest.

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How much were gifts worth?

First, the rules: If you take a legislator out to dinner and the bill is at least $50, they have to report it. And if you give them something that puts them over the $590 annual gift limit, they have to give it back.

In 2023, gifts worth a total of more than $330,000 were given to legislators, according to the reports. That total is more than double the $163,000 worth of gifts reported in 2022.

All but one of the 120 lawmakers received a gift. The outlier: Sen. Dave Cortese, a Campbell Democrat, who hasn’t reported taking a gift for at least the last three years. Democratic Assemblymember Avelino Valencia from Anaheim reported accepting, and then reimbursing, just more than $2,300 in gifts and $1,100 in sponsored travel.

An analysis of the gift givers reflects who controls the Legislature — Democrats. Nearly 20% came from party leaders, a total of $24,000, almost all for food and drinks at policy retreats. The value of all the gifts Democrats reported receiving is more than five times reported by Republicans, who hold 26 of the 120 seats.

The “Speaker 2023 Inaugural Fund” run by Rivas gave $22,000 worth of stuff at that big reception, including those engraved boxes. The fund accepted donations of at least $25,000 each from labor unions, including those representing nurses, prison guards and teachers. Businesses, such as Kaiser and PG&E, cut checks for $50,000 each.

Anthony Rendon, Rivas’ predecessor as Assembly speaker, ranked third on the list of top gift givers, doling out $16,000 worth of food and jackets to 19 lawmakers.

Wining and dining comprised more than a quarter of all gifts last year; at least $85,000 was spent picking up the tab for more than 100 legislators on more than 750 occasions. (Legislators get paid $128,215 a year, plus $214 a day for expenses when they’re in session, and leaders get more.)

But not all the gifts were from interest or advocacy groups, and some even show the human connection between legislators.

Assemblymember Corey Jackson, Democrat from Moreno Valley, gave 16 of his female coworkers flowers for their birthdays, at a total cost of about $1,000. They were bipartisan bouquets; three went to Republicans in the Assembly.

Assemblymember Lori Wilson, a Democrat from Suisun City who underwent treatment for breast cancer last year, received flowers from Jackson and from 14 other individuals and groups, worth about $1,400 in total.

Free travel for legislators

Fancy dinners and receptions are nice, but the annual gift limit keeps the total relatively low. That isn’t the case with sponsored travel, which is effectively unlimited. 

Special interest groups and nonprofits flew lawmakers to Argentina, Canada, France and elsewhere around the globe. In 2023, more than 100 groups spent about $1.1 million on sponsored trips, compared to 85 groups and $950,000 in travel in 2022. 

While 105 legislators reported taking at least one trip last year, three accepted more than $30,000 worth.

Sen. Nancy Skinner, an Oakland Democrat, reported her four trips were worth $38,000, the most of any legislator. The trips are valuable for getting ideas about what works well, including countries with similar infrastructure, she said. 

“We did intensive learning about France’s high speed rail, which is of course much harder to learn about in the U.S. since, where do we have examples of electric high-speed rail?” she said.

Skinner also said she doesn’t accept every invitation for a trip, only those on her key interests: energy, the environment, housing and public safety. 

Assemblymember Mike Gipson, a Gardena Democrat, reported trips with the second highest value — 10 journeys worth more than $31,000. Assemblymember Mike Fong, a Democrat from Monterey Park, accepted 15 trips that were worth more than $30,600. 

Assemblymember Blanca Pacheco, Democrat from Downey, was the most frequent traveler. She reported taking 18 trips last year, but they were valued at only $27,150.

Even if the trips lead to policy or ideas for legislators, when nonprofits invite legislators and their representatives attend as well, it creates at least the appearance of a potential conflict of interest, said Carmen Balbar, executive director of Consumer Watchdog.

“If you have somebody’s ear, you have a chance to influence them. And most constituents of every lawmaker isn’t going to be able to sponsor a trip for their representative,” she said. 

More transparency could help reassure Californians that their legislators are working in the public interest, she said: “Maybe, when we pull back the curtain and have an idea of who was there and what their interests might be, we’ll be able to better parse if they’re lobbying or not.”

This session, Sen. Ben Allen, an El Segundo Democrat, is pushing a bill to increase disclosure of these trips

As CalMatters reported last year, a 2015 law intended to require more transparency by organizations that sponsor legislative travel has had little impact. It requires annual reports by these groups listing any donors who gave more than $1,000 and also accompanied elected officials on any portion of a trip — but only if the travel expenses totaled more than $10,000, or at least $5,000 to a single official and if the spending accounts for at least one-third of the nonprofit’s total expenses. 

Allen’s bill would delete that second requirement about expenses and also require disclosure from any person who organizes trips, whether it’s a nonprofit or a business. He said Monday that he authored the measure largely in response to the CalMatters story. 

“If you’re a massive organization that is spending money on a gazillion other things, does that make the disclosure of your trips any less meaningful or impactful and important?” he asked. “Disclosure helps the press and the public and other folks that are trying to engage in the political process to better understand the system that’s in place to influence legislators.”

Allen, himself, went on 6 trips valued at $13,960 last year, plus $40,000 worth in 2022.

Just as in 2022, the largest sponsor of trips last year was the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy, and it wasn’t close. The group spent about $375,000 — nearly one-third of the total for all trip sponsors — to take legislators on “study tours,” where legislators and some foundation board members meet with foreign business and government leaders to learn about policy.

The San Francisco-based nonprofit has organized these tours for decades, funded and attended by representatives of companies and interest groups with business before the state. The foundation’s board is made up of organizations that don’t usually agree on issues, such as the Western States Petroleum Association and the Environmental Defense Fund, or municipal water providers and irrigation districts that mostly serve agricultural interests.

In an email to CalMatters last year, Jay Hansen, president and CEO of the foundation, said the purpose of the trips is not to advocate on behalf of its board members’ interests but to help lawmakers “better understand complex issues, witness best practices, and contemplate policy implications.”

At the same time, the foundation has said the trips have led to bills. Legislators who have gone on these trips told CalMatters last year that they are useful. 

In 2023 the nonprofit sponsored eight trips, three abroad, including last March to Denmark, where nine legislators looked at offshore wind and other low carbon energy sources. Some foundation events are closer to home: In February 2023, 18 legislators went to Napa for an energy policy conference, and in June, seven lawmakers also went to Napa for a transportation policy retreat and stayed at the ritzy Silverado Hotel.

The pace of travel picked up in the second half of 2023, though, with a trip nearly every month. That’s expected: The fall of odd numbered years is called the “interim study recess” by the state Senate because there aren’t legislative elections, giving lawmakers time to learn about policy.

Last fall, the foundation took legislators to British Columbia to learn about recyclingto Lake Tahoe to talk about technology and to Southern California in September to observe more low carbon energy projects. Legislators toured high-speed rail in France in October and closed out the year at a water conference at the Ritz-Carlton in Laguna Niguel.

Click here to read the full article in CalMatters

Power is never having to say ‘no.’ How California Democrats kill bills without voting against them

Mike Fong has cast more than 6,000 votes since he joined the state Assembly in 2022 and never once voted “no.” Pilar Schiavo is newer to the Assembly, but she has yet to vote “no” after more than 2,000 opportunities.

Remarkably, their Democratic colleagues in the Legislature are not much different. Using our new Digital Democracy database, CalMatters examined more than 1 million votes cast by current legislators since 2017 and found Democrats vote “no” on average less than 1% of the time.

Why? It’s not something they want to talk about. Democrats have had super-majorities in both legislative chambers since 2019, so most votes involve bills from their political colleagues. But the legislative leaders and lawmakers contacted by CalMatters declined repeated requests to explain a pattern that might appear like a rubber stamp for deals made out of public view. And it seems to be sanctioned by leaders.

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“There’s only two fucking buttons on your desk: There’s a green button, and there’s a red button,” then-Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon told the California Labor Federation last year in remarks reported by Politico. “Ninety-nine percent of the time, the green button is the labor button. Ninety-nine percent of the time, the green button means you’re doing the right thing, and the red button means that you’re an asshole.” 

Rendon’s office declined to comment or make him available for an interview.

Instead of voting “no,” the data, video and transcripts in CalMatters’ Digital Democracy project reveals that legislators will often decline to cast a vote. Lawmakers widely use the tactic as a courtesy to avoid irking fellow legislators who’d get upset if they vote “no” on their bills, but it’s a controversial practice that critics say allows them to avoid accountability.

“There are a lot of people who abstain and who years later will claim, ‘Oh, I was in the bathroom,’ or ‘I was gone,’ or ‘I was in a meeting,’” said Mike Gatto, a former Democratic Assemblymember from Los Angeles. “It provides them an excuse after the fact to claim that they were not there. I always thought that was cowardly, the opposite of courageous.”

Last year, at least 15 bills died due to lack of votes instead of lawmakers actually voting “no” to kill them.

The most notorious example was when a bill to increase penalties for child sex trafficking died in the Assembly Public Safety Committee because Democrats did not vote. After widespread condemnation, Gov. Gavin Newsom got involved, prompting some committee Democrats to apologize and re-vote on the measure that Newsom later signed

At least three fentanyl-related bills also died last year due to Democrats refusing to vote on them, infuriating Regina Chavez, who advocated for the legislation. Her 15-year-old daughter, Jewels Marie Wolf, died from the drug in 2022.

“I personally am insulted, because I think everything should be on the record when you hold a state title,” she said. “That is what they signed up for to represent us.”

Chavez along with a group of mothers of youth who died from fentanyl learned about the prevalence of non-votes by exploring the Digital Democracy database.

In a glaring example they found, a bill had 22 bipartisan cosponsors and would likely pass if it reached the Senate floor, but it died in the Senate Public Safety Committee when the four Democrats — Nancy Skinner, Steven Bradford, Aisha Wahab and Scott Wiener — declined to vote by staying silent during the roll call. None of them responded to interview requests.

The bill, called “Alexandra’s Law” for a young woman who died from the drug, would have required judges to read a warning to defendants who’d been convicted of dealing fentanyl that if they dealt the drugs again, they could be charged with murder if someone died after taking their fentanyl.

More than 100 people testified in the hearing, almost all in support of the bill and many sharing their own experiences with fentanyl deaths. Some of the Democrats who did not vote had a lengthy discussion with the bill’s author, Sen. Tom Umberg, a Democrat and former federal prosecutor. (This link to Digital Democracy includes information about the bill, SB 44, as well as video and transcripts of the hearing).

“It’s beyond frustrating,” said Laura Didier, who has testified several times in Sacramento about fentanyl legislation and whose 17-year-old son, Zach, died from the drug in 2020 (See video and transcripts of all Laura Didier’s testimony).

Didier said it took an enormous amount of work to assemble the bipartisan group of bill sponsors and the supporters who testified. “To me, it just makes no sense that … people, by withholding their vote, can kill that momentum. You know, it’s very, very frustrating.”

In another example last year, the former chairperson of the Assembly Public Safety Committee cast a “no” vote to kill a bill, AB 367, that would have led to longer prison sentences for fentanyl dealers. Seconds later, he withdrew his vote after all five of his fellow Democrats on the committee killed the bill by not voting.

The then-chairperson, Reggie Jones-Sawyer, a Los Angeles Democrat who is running for Los Angeles City Council when his term expires this year, didn’t return a message from CalMatters.

He told the committee last spring that he was a mortician during the crack cocaine epidemic, so he empathized with families who lost loved ones to fentanyl, but he sided with activists who testified that people of color have unfairly and disproportionately borne the brunt of harsh sentences for drug crimes.

“Our communities were decimated by the War on Drugs,” he said.

Digital Democracy’s analysis

The CalMatters data analysis included more than 1 million votes currently sitting lawmakers have taken since 2017 in committees and on the Senate or Assembly floors. The analysis only included votes on actual bills. Routine resolutions were not included. The data was collected by Digital Democracy from the Legislature’s official bill-tracking website.

The site records each lawmaker’s “aye,” and “no” votes. If a lawmaker does not vote on a bill, it’s listed as “NVR,” short for “No Vote Recorded.” The online system does not distinguish between a vote to abstain, an absence or when the legislator is present but no vote is cast. 

The CalMatters analysis reveals that 38 of the 94 members of the Democratic caucus have voted “no” 20 or fewer times since 2017. This, despite each senator and Assemblymember having thousands of opportunities to vote. Some of those lawmakers have served since 2017.

While all Democrats rarely vote “no,” some members stand out in the analysis.

They include Assemblymember Jesse Gabriel of Encino. He’s been in office since 2018 and has cast more than 12,000 “aye” votes. He’s voted “no” just nine times. Lisa Calderon of City of Industry has served in the Assembly since 2020 and cast nearly 9,000 “aye” votes. She’s voted “no” once.

Assemblymember Eduardo Garcia of Coachella has cast more than 15,000 “aye” votes since 2017. He’s only voted “no” eight times. Assemblymembers Schiavo of Santa Clarita Valley and Fong of Los Angeles are the two current members who have never voted “no.” 

None of those lawmakers responded to CalMatters’ interview requests

Meanwhile, the Digital Democracy analysis showed wide discrepancies in not voting. Garcia, the Assemblymember from Coachella, had more than 2,000 NVRs, the most of any of his Democratic colleagues since 2017.

Fong, who serves on the powerful Appropriations Committee, stood out for another reason other than never voting “no.” As of last week, he only had 25 NVRs, the lowest abstention or absence rate of any lawmaker.

Robert Rivas, who became speaker of the Assembly last year, has only voted “no” nine out of 12,308 times since he joined the Assembly in 2018. He abstained or was absent from voting 673 times during that period.

“The Speaker will not be available for your story,” his press secretary, Cynthia Moreno, said in an emailed response to CalMatters’ request to discuss his voting record and the records of his fellow Democratic lawmakers.

Republicans and the red button

It’s no surprise that vastly outnumbered Republicans in the Legislature regularly vote “no” on Democratic bills. They do so on average 21% of the time. But CalMatters’ analysis shows they tend not to vote on bills at higher rates than Democrats.

The average Republican “No Vote Recorded” rate is around 12%. The average rate for Democrats is 4.5%.

James Gallagher, the Assembly’s minority leader, said it’s due to Democrats largely cutting the Republicans out of bill discussions, leading to situations where Republicans might not oppose a bill’s intent, but they don’t feel comfortable voting for language they can’t change.

“That (bill) might be at a place where you sort of agree with where they’re trying to go with it,” said Gallagher, a Republican from Chico. “But you’re just not really sure that the policy is really right and it’s taking into account all the different unintended consequences.”

Gallagher has voted “no” 3,236 times since 2017, and he’s been listed as a “No Vote Recorded” 1,708 times. 

Gallagher said he’d support making the process more transparent by requiring lawmakers to officially declare an abstention instead of the way it’s reported now, where the public has no easy way of knowing whether a member was actually absent or just declined to vote on a bill.

Bill Essayli, a Corona Republican who’s served in the Assembly since 2022, has the highest percentage of NVRs in the Legislature. Twenty-three percent of his votes are NVRs. 

Essayli said he learned it’s better to abstain on some bills instead of voting “no” to avoid retaliation from Democrats. He said Democrats are “very sensitive” and punish legislators of both parties when they vote “no.”

He noted that last year, Democrats briefly stripped Bakersfield Democratic Assemblymember Jasmeet Bains of a committee assignment after she sided with Republicans and cast the lone Democratic “no” vote against Gov. Newsom’s gas-price windfall tax bill.

Essayli said he’s taken to abstaining from votes on bills he doesn’t support when he’s not trying to make a strong political statement. “Not voting is a polite ‘no,’” he said. “And then hitting the red button is like an ‘F no.’”

Essayli said Democrats have targeted him after voting “no.” The California Democratic Party put up a billboard in his district, accusing him of voting against fentanyl victims. He said it was retaliation for him voting “no” on legislation that contained a fentanyl provision that he supported buried in a large budget bill that he did not.

Click here to read the full article in CalMatters

California criminal justice battle intensifies with reformers’ counteroffensive

Groups that have fought to downgrade drug and property sentences are defending those changes.

Criminal justice reform advocates are mobilizing to thwart a ballot initiative that would reverse California’s recent turn away from tougher criminal penalties.

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The counteroffensive signals that those advocates fear the initiative to crack down drug and property crimes, backed by prosecutors and major retailers, has a strong chance of landing on the November ballot. If it does, it could unravel a series of recent political victories seeking to overhaul sentencing and incarceration.

A six-figure digital advertising campaign, funded by some of the same groups and people that have championed lighter criminal penalties, urges Californians to reject the tough-on-crime ballot measure and instead push for changes in the Legislature. It notes that the campaign has been funded by major corporations like Target, Home Depot, and Walmart, and backed by Republicans like Rep. Kevin Kiley.

“It’s a dangerous scam that will not work,” the group said in a statement. “It will only set California’s progress back decades, making us less safe.”

A newly launched committee supporting the advertising campaign has reported donations from Quinn Delaney and Stacy Schusterman, who have together poured millions into California prosecutor and crime ballot measure campaigns, and an organization whose leader, Tinisch Hollins, has championed efforts to reduce criminal penalties.

The escalating battle marks another chapter in California’s long struggle over criminal justice. After setting the tone for a national era of mass incarceration, the increasingly liberal state has shifted markedly in the other direction over the last decade.

Voters passed ballot initiatives in 2014 and 2016 that downgraded some drug and property crimes to misdemeanors and allowed for earlier releases from prison, and in 2020 they rejected a ballot measure that sought to restore some of those penalties. Gov. Gavin Newsom urged voters to vote no on that measure, and his current chief of staff ran the opposition campaign.

More recently, Newsom and Democratic lawmakers have rebuffed calls to revisit those past ballot initiatives, instead advancing a package of bills targeting repeat or organized retail theft, enhancing penalties for selling fentanyl, and making it easier to prosecute car thieves.

Click here to read the full article in Politico

Newsom, lawmakers agree to first $17 billion in cuts

Gov. Gavin Newsom and leaders of the Senate and Assembly announced an agreement Thursday to cut $17 billion from the state budget in April, providing the first details of their plan to begin to tackle California’s massive deficit.

The plan calls for delaying $1 billion in grant funding for transit and intercity rail projects, saving $762.5 million by pausing hiring for open state jobs and pulling back $500 million from a program to help districts pay for K-12 building projects, among other proposals to trim the shortfall now before additional cuts are made this summer.

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“We are able to meet this challenge thanks to our responsible fiscal stewardship over the past years, including record budget reserves of close to $38 billion,” Newsom said in a statement. “There is still work to do as we finalize the budget and I look forward to the work ahead together to continue building the California of the future.”

The agreement marks a redo of a fumbled budget announcement made last month when Newsom and legislative leaders heralded a premature deal without disclosing an exact amount of funding they intended to cut or detailing a single program that would be affected.

Lawmakers and the governor are scrambling to reduce California’s budget deficit, which Newsom estimated at $37.9 billion in January, before the fiscal forecast is updated in the coming weeks to likely show California in an even deeper budget hole. Estimates from the Legislative Analyst’s Office have suggested the deficit next year could be nearly twice as high as Newsom’s forecast.

Lower than expected revenues, delayed tax deadlines and overspending based on inaccurate budget projections created California’s grim financial picture. The state budget relies heavily on capital gains taxes paid by California’s highest earners, making state revenues subject to volatility in the stock market.

Republicans have criticized the lack of transparency in state budget negotiations and contend Democrats created the fiscal crisis by continuing to fund expensive programs, such as the expansion of Medi-Cal to all low-income immigrants, even as state revenues drop.

Assembly Republican Leader James Gallagher (R-Yuba City) called the budget deal “a swing and a miss from Democrats.”

The first round of cuts could be voted on as early as next Thursday.

Democrats also agreed to pull $12.2 billion from state reserve accounts to cover the shortfall when the final budget is approved later on. The early cuts combined with the planned dip into the reserves will trim $29.5 billion off the deficit.

“We are all committed to delivering an on-time balanced budget, and this early action agreement is a critical first step to shrink the state’s shortfall,” said Senate President Pro Tem Mike McGuire (D-Healdsburg).

Because the shortfall this year is so large, Newsom has urged the Legislature to take “early action” to begin to whittle away at the deficit now, long before the June 15 deadline to pass a budget.

The cuts Democrats agreed to make this month are largely considered the easier choices, allowing them to focus on tougher deliberations that will come later on this spring. Reducing the deficit before Newsom unveils his revised budget proposal in May could also lessen the public perception of the state’s fiscal woes by trimming the deficit figure before it is expected to grow.

The struggle to reach a consensus up until this point foreshadows the difficult work ahead in May and June for a Legislature and governor with little experience leading through a fiscal crisis as they weigh challenging choices that affect millions of Californians.

The agreement announced Thursday largely mirrors a plan the Senate put forward weeks ago to “shrink the shortfall” by $17 billion, which aligned with many of Newsom’s proposals to begin to offset the deficit.

The Assembly, where Democrats hold 62 of 80 seats under a new speaker, took a little longer to reach a consensus. This week, the lower house said it pushed back on some of the governor’s proposed cuts to housing and homelessness programs, which were ultimately left out of the early action deal. At the Assembly’s urging, the agreement also authorizes the administration to pause one-time spending from previous budget years that has not yet been dispersed.

Assembly Speaker Robert Rivas (D-Hollister) said his chamber’s approach was the “right way to come at closing such a massive shortfall” and that he expects Newsom “to deliver challenging budget proposals next month to reduce the deficit in the long-term.”

The agreement, according to Newsom and legislative leaders, includes:

Saving $762.5 million by declining to fill vacant state positions.

Cutting $500 million from the School Facility Aid Program, which funds K-12 building projects.

Click here to read the full article in the LA Times

S.F. homeless housing nonprofit blasted for misusing taxpayer funds

One of San Francisco’s largest providers of housing for formerly homeless people “misused” taxpayer funds, lacked key financial controls and engaged in other problematic practices that “heightened the risk of fraud,” according to a city report released Tuesday.

“(T)he breadth and magnitude of financial and compliance problems we found at HomeRise is concerning,” wrote Sjoberg Evashenk Consulting Inc., an independent firm the city hired to audit the nonprofit.

Janéa Jackson, CEO of HomeRise, said Tuesday afternoon that the nonprofit’s leadership is “100% committed” to resolving the issues noted in the audit. Jackson, who took over as head of the nonprofit in June 2023, said she has already addressed several of the concerns. 

San Francisco nonprofits receive hundreds of millions of dollars to provide services to the city’s most vulnerable residents — whether unhoused or struggling with mental illness or substance abuse. But nonprofits have come under increasing scrutiny in recent years as local organizations have been accused of financial mismanagement, or worse. 

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HomeRise was the subject of controversy last week after one of the nonprofit’s complexes in Mission Bay was criticized during a hearing at City Hall where residents complained it was contributing to violent and disturbing incidents in the neighborhood, a characterization the city rejected.

The revelations in the report on HomeRise follow a slew of scandals at nonprofits that contract with San Francisco over the past three years. The executive director of a Bayview food bank was accused of using city funds to enrich herself. Other nonprofits were accused of labor violations and overspending their budget. And a public-safety-focused nonprofit fired its executive director after finding it spent nearly $80,000 in grant money on ineligible expenses, including a Lake Tahoe trip, luxury gift boxes and limo service.  

HomeRise operates more than 1,500 units at 19 properties across the city, with an annual budget of about $34 million and some 250 employees. The city’s current agreements with HomeRise total more than $240 million in loans, grants and subsidies. That includes $110 million in loans to develop or rehabilitate properties, $90 million for operations and maintenance, and more than $40 million in grants for support services.

Auditors found “unallowable, imprudent, or questionable spending” by HomeRise that was inconsistent with the terms of its agreement, such as using city dollars for fundraising, paying staff bonuses, and providing lunches and gifts to its staff.  

As of January 2023, the nonprofit had 118 active credit cards in use — equivalent to roughly half of its workforce — of which more than a third had credit limits of $10,000 or higher, according to the audit. HomeRise did not have sufficient controls on the credit cards to prevent risk of fraudulent expenses, waste or other abuse going undetected, the report found. 

Jackson said Tuesday that the organization has recently reduced its number of corporate credit cards to about 30 and that most now have a limit of $2,500.

The audit also uncovered that the nonprofit gave out “signing” bonuses to employees who had been working for HomeRise for two to 13 years. Through job promotions, one HomeRise official’s salary allegedly increased more than $87,000, or 74%, in the span of just nine months. More than $200,000 in bonuses were “unplanned and unbudgeted,” worsening cash flow problems, the report stated.

The large raises and bonuses were handed out despite the nonprofit reportedly losing millions of dollars a year due to high vacancy rates in its buildings. In July 2023, more than 14% of units across the nonprofit’s properties were empty, the report found. Two of the nonprofit’s oldest buildings, the San Cristina at 1000 Market St. and the Senator Hotel at 519 Ellis St., had vacancy rates of 34.5% and 29.2% respectively.

The audit stated that the vacancies not only reduce the nonprofit’s potential rental revenue, but, “More importantly, vacant units represent missed opportunities to provide unhoused people with permanent, supportive housing.”

At the same time, the nonprofit had questionable costs including more than $100,000 in temporary rental charges, $96,000 for salaries paid to tenant program services staff and $12,500 for a social event.

The report criticized the lack of leadership and accountability at the organization, which was partly due to an “alarming rate of turnover” in key corporate positions, the document noted. 

The controller’s office could not determine the total magnitude of HomeRise’s inappropriate spending or unallowable charges because, in most cases, there was no supporting documentation.

After trying and failing to work with HomeRise to address growing concerns, the homelessness department and the Mayor’s Office of Housing and Community Development, or MOHCD, requested the audit in 2022. 

Formerly known as Community Housing Partnership, HomeRise was founded in 1990 as a partnership between the Coalition on Homelessness and a group of nonprofit housing developers called the Council of Community Housing Organizations. To this day, the coalition and council each get to appoint four members to the organization’s board of directors. 

Six months after a city department issued a notice of default at one of HomeRise’s properties, the city controller placed HomeRise on “elevated concern status” due to its financial instability. 

HomeRise remains on that elevated concern status. 

Click here to read the full article in the SF Chronicle

Walters: California progressives forced to play defense as state faces huge budget deficits

A couple of years ago, California’s left-leaning interest groups – those seeking a more expansive array of social and medical services to benefit workers and the state’s large population of low-income residents – seemed to be making a breakthrough after decades of frustration.

With Gov. Gavin Newsom bragging about a nearly $100 billion state budget surplus, progressive coalitions gained footholds on some long-sought priorities, such as medical coverage for undocumented immigrants, income supports for the working poor and more expansive care and education for preschool children.

That was then and this is now.

The state now faces a monumental budget deficit, in part because the state committed portions of a supposed surplus that never materialized. While Newsom so far has pegged the deficit at $38 billion, state revenues continue to lag behind forecasts and the Legislature’s budget analyst, Gabe Petek, says it could top $70 billion.

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Moreover, both Newsom’s budget department and Petek are warning that annual deficits in the $30 billion range are likely for several years to come.

The harsh fiscal reality not only may doom expansion of the programmatic gains that those on the left championed, but imperil their very existence just as the additional benefits begin kicking in.

In short, it’s crunch time for California’s progressive activists.

A couple of years ago, California’s left-leaning interest groups – those seeking a more expansive array of social and medical services to benefit workers and the state’s large population of low-income residents – seemed to be making a breakthrough after decades of frustration.

With Gov. Gavin Newsom bragging about a nearly $100 billion state budget surplus, progressive coalitions gained footholds on some long-sought priorities, such as medical coverage for undocumented immigrants, income supports for the working poor and more expansive care and education for preschool children.

That was then and this is now.

The state now faces a monumental budget deficit, in part because the state committed portions of a supposed surplus that never materialized. While Newsom so far has pegged the deficit at $38 billion, state revenues continue to lag behind forecasts and the Legislature’s budget analyst, Gabe Petek, says it could top $70 billion.

Moreover, both Newsom’s budget department and Petek are warning that annual deficits in the $30 billion range are likely for several years to come.

The harsh fiscal reality not only may doom expansion of the programmatic gains that those on the left championed, but imperil their very existence just as the additional benefits begin kicking in.

In short, it’s crunch time for California’s progressive activists.

Click here to read the full article in CalMatters

After Issuing Death Sentence on CA’s Death Penalty, Gov. Newsom Approves 3 more Prison Closures

Gov. Jerry Brown’s AB 109 was the first move by California Democrats to dismantle California’s criminal justice system

“Newsom has approved three California prison closures but resists pressure to shutter more,” the Los Angeles Times headline reports… as if Gov. Newsom is so altruistic, he is restraining himself from closing more prisons – for the good of the people.

After running for governor on upholding voter’s support of the death penalty, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced in March 2019, shortly after taking office, that he would grant reprieves for all death penalty murderers on California’s death row. He called the death penalty “ineffective, irreversible and immoral.” Newsom then signed an executive order putting a moratorium on the executions of the 737 inmates currently incarcerated in California’s death row.

With Newsom’s announcement a political friend said, “Another 737 just went down.”

“We cannot advance the death penalty in an effort to soften the blow of what happens to these victims,” Newsom said. “If someone kills, we do not kill. We’re better than that.”

In 2016, California voters rejected a ballot initiative that would have repealed the death penalty, and instead voted to expedite the executions of the inmates currently sitting on death row. Newsom supported the initiative to repeal.

“With his announcement that he is granting sentencing reprieves for all death penalty eligible murderers on California’s death row, Governor Gavin Newsom has substituted his own opinion for the repeated decisions of the state’s voters,” Michael Rushford with the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation said in an interview.

While Gov. Newsom and the state’s Democrat lawmakers continue to dismantle the criminal justice system, top to bottom, poll after poll shows escalating crime is one of the top issues among  Californians, which is why voters passed Proposition 66 in 2016, reaffirming the state’s death penalty, but also to speed up the appeals process.

In 2016 when Prop. 66 was passed, it was intended to be a remedy to the most heinous criminals sitting on death row for 30 years, with endless appeals delaying justice and costing taxpayers hundreds of millions – and to ensure no innocent person was executed. Opponents sued, taking the case to the California Supreme Court, which upheld voters’ decision, but watered down a part of the initiative. The Court stated that provisions requiring the state to speed up the death penalty appeals process were directive, rather than mandatory.

On the latest prison closures, the LA Times addresses the 2011 Supreme Court ruling that deemed overcrowding of prisons unconstitutional and ruled that prisons cannot exceed 137.5% of capacity. That same year, the state passed a law that relocated low-level offenders without prior serious or violent felonies to serve their time in a county jail instead of state prison.

What they don’t say is that Gov. Jerry Brown’s Assembly Bill 109, the “Prison Realignment” bill was the first move by California Democrats to dismantle California’s criminal justice system.

Assembly Bill 109, in 2011, was then-Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature legislation he sold as “prison realignment.” However, AB 109 only served to overwhelm county jails by moving “nonviolent” state offenders from prison. Gov. Brown could have built more prisons, but instead reduced the population by releasing or pushing inmates to local county jails, which are not designed to house someone past a year, and prevents law enforcement from taking low-level offenders in.

Adding insult to injury, Proposition 47, passed by misinformed voters in 2014, flagrantly titled “The Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act,” decriminalized drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor, removing law enforcement’s ability to make an arrest in most circumstances, as well as removing judges’ ability to order drug rehabilitation programs rather than incarceration. And perhaps the most obvious aspect of Prop. 47 on display today raised the theft threshold to $950 per location, and bumped theft down to a misdemeanor from a felony.

Proposition 57, shamelessly titled “the Public Safety and Rehabilitation Act” passed in 2016, now allows nonviolent felons to qualify for early release, and parole boards can now only consider an inmate’s most recent charge, and not their entire history because of this proposition. Notably, both Prop. 47 and 57 were given their ballot titles by then-Attorney General Kamala Harris.

Crimes now considered “nonviolent” under Proposition 57 in California include:

  • human trafficking of a child
  • rape of an unconscious person or by intoxication
  • drive by shooting at inhabited dwelling or vehicle
  • assault with a firearm or deadly weapon
  • assault on a police officer
  • serial arson
  • exploding a bomb to injure people
  • solicitation to commit murder
  • assault from a caregiver to a child under eight years old that could result in a coma or death
  • felony domestic violence. 

Ten years of increased drug and serial theft crimes, and a violent crime wave across California has taken its toll on the state’s residents and businesses. A proposed ballot initiative to amend Prop. 47 is currently collecting signatures for the November 2024 ballot. More than 500,000 California voters have already signed the petition to place the measure on the ballot.

The campaign reports that a survey of likely California voters found that 70% of voters support the title and summary of the Homeless, Drug Addiction, Retail Theft Reduction Act. The overwhelming support was consistent across every demographic and geography including the Bay Area and Los Angeles. Furthermore, 89% of likely voters support amending Proposition 47 for stronger penalties for those engaged in repeated retail theft and trafficking hard drugs like fentanyl. The measure also includes incentives to complete drug and mental health treatment for people who are addicted to hard drugs.

Gov. Newsom’s push to close more prisons ahead of Californians’ opportunity to vote on Prop. 47 reforms make his agenda clear – he’s not interested in the safety and security of California’s residents – he’s prioritizing campaign funders and anti-criminal justice special interests.

The LA Times reports on more Democrat altruism:

Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) and Assemblymember Mia Bonta (D-Alameda), both members of the Legislative Black Caucus whose priorities include prison reform, say they want more prisons to close.

Bradford said that he supports a more “holistic vision” of public safety.

“Investing in rehabilitation will pay dividends by reducing the revolving door of recidivism and will allow formerly incarcerated individuals to successfully re-integrate when they return home to their communities and families,” he told The Times in an email.

While serving in her former role as chair of the Assembly’s budget subcommittee on public safety, Bonta was outspoken about the opportunity California had to close more prisons.

“We have an insurmountable budget deficit,” she said, referring to the state’s $73-billion budget shortfall estimated by the Legislative Analyst’s Office. Bonta said the deficit is forcing the legislature to look for cuts.

Click here to read the full article in the California Globe

Coupal: The League of California Cities’ war on taxpayers

The League of California Cities has always been biased against the interests of taxpayers. This became especially clear during the historic Proposition 13 campaign in 1978 when the League, along with the rest of the spending lobby, predicted the end of Western Civilization if Prop. 13 passed.

Just how out of touch was the League with the voting public?  Based on election results, the voters approved Prop. 13 in 90% of the cities in California.

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The League of Cities’ conduct during the Prop. 13 campaign was so bad that then Governor Jerry Brown scolded the League for demanding more money and being oblivious to the tax revolt. According to an article in the Los Angeles Times on May 5, 1978, just one month before the vote, “Gov. Brown [was] peppered with demands for more state money from a group of city officials [at a League meeting in San Diego] suggest[ing] they resembled passengers on the Titanic demanding more deck chairs. ‘You, of all people, should realize that a tax revolt is under way’ . . .  Said Brown to a chorus of boos, ‘you’d better wake up to the tax revolt.’”

The League’s intransigent position on tax relief even earned it criticism from Democratic legislative leadership. “Modest cuts in taxes and government spending were proposed and ignored.” Dan Boatwright, chairman of the state Assembly Ways and Means Committee, said, “The League of California Cities and the County Supervisors Assn. lobbied [legislators] to death.”‘

To add insult to injury, all this anti-taxpayer lobbying was paid for with taxpayer dollars.

In addition to advocating against taxpayers, a more recent phenomenon is that many of the League positions are contrary to the interests of cities and the principle of local control. Several municipal officials who are actually concerned about the fiscal health of their cities are growing disenchanted with the League and are moving to distance themselves from League positions and even to leave the League entirely.

This past Tuesday, the Orange City Council voted to leave the League over its support for Proposition 1 – a measure many local officials say could worsen the problems currently associated with group homes. “It should be noted that housing projects funded by this bond would be considered ‘use by right,’ potentially preempting local zoning law for properties with multifamily residential, office, retail, or parking uses,” reads the City of Orange staff report.

The move by Orange comes after Newport Beach and Huntington Beach left the League of California Cities over its support for Prop. 1.  Newport Beach Mayor Will O’Neill stated, “While the League of California Cities has regularly taken positions opposite the interests of taxpayers, the tipping point to leave the League completely came when they advocated for Proposition 1 despite acknowledging the serious and disastrous effects buried in the fine print. Specifically, Prop. 1 will take away local control by requiring cities to approve rehab housing funded with billions of dollars in new bond money. The League is supposed to advocate for cities, but they have actively harmed cities with this overtly political decision. Cities should not fund an organization putting Sacramento’s interests above our residents.”

The most recent target of the League’s hysterical outrage is the Taxpayer Protection and Government Accountability Act (TPA), a proposed constitutional amendment which has already qualified for the November 2024 ballot. It is sponsored by taxpayer and business organizations to restore key provisions of Proposition 13 and other pro-taxpayer laws that give voters more control over when and how new tax revenue is raised.

Although TPA, unlike previous tax reform measures, doesn’t reduce or eliminate any state or local tax, it does impose both enhanced voter approval requirements for fee and tax increases as well as robust accountability and transparency provisions. And yet, even though TPA is relatively modest, the League, once again, is predicting End Times disasters.

For example, the League’s chief complaint about TPA isn’t about TPA at all, but rather a long-standing provision of Proposition 13 requiring a two-thirds vote for local special taxes (taxes for a specific purpose). This 44-year-old requirement was weakened in 2017 by ambiguity in the California Supreme Court’s infamous Upland decision. Lower courts have interpreted the decision to allow special taxes to pass with only 50% plus one vote if the tax was put on the ballot by a “citizens’ initiative.” This has enabled special interests to draft their own tax increases, direct the money to themselves, and get these self-serving measures passed with only a simple majority vote. TPA simply restores the two-thirds vote requirement and closes this costly loophole.

Click here to read the full article in the OC Register

Newsom has approved three California prison closures but resists pressure to shutter more

SACRAMENTO —  Gov. Gavin Newsom went far beyond the promise he made in his first year in office to close at least one California state prison. But now, he is resisting calls from criminal justice advocates and liberal state lawmakers to shutter five more penitentiaries.

Shortly after taking office, Newsom placed a moratorium on the death penalty and has approved the closure of three prisons since 2019, but his administration appears to be pulling back from a 2022 budget proposal that considered “right-sizing California’s prison system” by possibly closing even more facilities. The administration fears that operating the state’s existing 31 prisons remains necessary to accommodate California’s fluctuating inmate population, enhance rehabilitation programs and avoid a repeat of the overcrowding that led to federal court intervention over a decade ago.

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“The governor has a long track record of being on the progressive side of criminal justice. His belief that we can reduce prison populations and improve public safety is achievable. That’s the core of his goal,” said Michael Romano, director of the Three Strikes Project at Stanford University. “But the question of closing more prisons is complicated and goes beyond public safety. I don’t think they go as hand-in-hand as people want them to.”

Newsom finds himself in a precarious political spot. Crime was among the top issues that Californians want the Legislature and governor to work on in 2024, according to a Public Policy Institute of California poll released in February. But no matter what he decides to do, large swaths of California voters will disagree. On the one hand, he could disappoint liberal lawmakers and others advocating for the end of California’s tough-on-crime era of mass incarceration. On the other, he’d provoke moderates and conservatives concerned that prison and criminal justice reforms have gone far enough.

Sen. Steven Bradford (D-Gardena) and Assemblymember Mia Bonta (D-Alameda), both members of the Legislative Black Caucus whose priorities include prison reform, say they want more prisons to close.

Bradford said that he supports a more “holistic vision” of public safety.

“Investing in rehabilitation will pay dividends by reducing the revolving door of recidivism and will allow formerly incarcerated individuals to successfully re-integrate when they return home to their communities and families,” he told The Times in an email.

While serving in her former role as chair of the Assembly’s budget subcommittee on public safety, Bonta was outspoken about the opportunity California had to close more prisons.

“We have an insurmountable budget deficit,” she said, referring to the state’s $73-billion budget shortfall estimated by the Legislative Analyst’s Office. Bonta said the deficit is forcing the legislature to look for cuts.

The Legislative Analyst’s Office, which advises state lawmakers, suggested that over the next four years the state can save up to $1 billion annually if it closes five more prisons.

Sen. Roger Niello (R-Fair Oaks), the vice chair of the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review committee, told The Times that he disagreed with the prospect of more closures. He said there is a debate over whether crime rates are up and, because of that, uncertainty about whether prison populations will rise in the coming years. Niello also said the enactment of tougher new laws, including a ballot measure to reform Proposition 47, could lead to longer prison sentences for property and drug crimes and in turn higher incarceration rates.

Niello said closing five additional state correctional facilities would take capacity down to a “dangerously low level.”

The Newsom administration has no plans to close more prisons, said H.D. Palmer, a representative from the Department of Finance. Palmer told The Times that prison populations “can and do” fluctuate but said the numbers would not go up as dramatically as some worry.

“One thing we don’t want to go back to is where we had triple bunking in cells,” Palmer said. “But I don’t think we’d return to old numbers.”

The administration has to comply with a 2011 Supreme Court ruling that deemed overcrowding of prisons unconstitutional and ruled that prisons cannot exceed 137.5% of capacity. That same year, the state passed a law that relocated low-level offenders without prior serious or violent felonies to serve their time in a county jail instead of state prison.

There have been other efforts to reduce population swelling in the last decade.

Voters have passed various ballot measures, including Proposition 36 in 2012, which allows eligible defendants convicted of nonviolent drug possession charges to enter treatment instead of going to jail or prison; Proposition 47 in 2014, which reduced some drug and property theft crimes from felonies to a misdemeanors; and Proposition 57 in 2016, which allows parole consideration of people convicted of nonviolent felonies, once they’ve already completed a prison term for their primary offense.

One year after the passage of Proposition 47, the prison and jail populations declined by 6% and 8.7%, respectively, according to a 2018 PPIC report. The report also noted court-ordered population reduction measures contributed to these dips.

The legislative analysts report noted that the administration has said that closing more prisons could create challenges, such as reducing the availability of treatment and reentry programs. The administration also states concerns over whether unexpected population increases in the future could raise the risks of overcrowding or even eliminate the necessity for prisoners to work some part-time and full-time jobs that provide them with a “meaningful way to occupy their time,” according to the LAO report.

But the legislative analyst’s report also found that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation — which consumes $14.5 billion of the governor’s proposed 2024-2025 budget — should be able shut down more facilities due to dwindling costs.

The report said the department’s expenses have declined, specifically mentioning fewer confirmed COVID-19 cases, alleviating healthcare costs. The department spends $4.5 billion annually on healthcare, including mental health and dental work.

The report also cites a shrinking prison population, which fell by 34,000 over the last five years, the largest period of decline in the last decade. The population is projected to fall from 94,000 today to 85,000 inmates by 2027. There are currently 15,000 empty beds, and the analyst’s office projects an increase to 19,000 empty beds by 2028.

“The reality is that this generally means the upper bunk may be vacant, but the lower bunk is occupied by an incarcerated individual,” Palmer told The Times in an email. The population in some facilities still far exceeds the design capacity of one incarcerated person per cell or bunk.

The Newsom administration argues that having a lower population in a prison provides opportunities for more effective rehabilitation, since fewer people will be competing for the same programs.

While in theory, fewer inmates mean the state should be spending less, the department has accrued significant costs due to raises to correctional officers’ salaries and pensions and in part due to COVID-19.

The department estimates that it will save the state $778 million starting next year, after the closure of three state prisons: Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy in 2021, California Correctional Center in Susanville in 2023, and Chuckawalla State Prison in Blythe, scheduled to close in March 2025.

California has also closed portions of various facilities across the state, and at the end of March will terminate its lease with the last private prison, California City Correctional Facility.

Californians United For a Responsible Budget, a statewide coalition whose mission is to identify wasteful prison spending, along with other organizations have gone as far as to demand the closure of 10 more prisons. Their requests stretch beyond saving the state money and argue it is a way for the state to repurpose land and invest back into communities, including those where the local economies are impacted by prison closures.

The department remains under pressure to trim its budget. Senate lawmakers recently asked agency officials to consider cutting costs by as much as $2 billion, or 15% of its total budget, in addition to what the department planned to save through its recent prison closures.

Scott Graves, the director of research at California Budget & Policy Center, told The Times that while the state should close more prisons, he is skeptical whether the money saved from closures would resolve budget woes in the immediate short term.

Click here to read the full article in the LA Times

Santa Clara has no money to meet $624 million in infrastructure needs

City officials are recommending a general obligation bond to fix some of the aging infrastructure

Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group

In the heart of Silicon Valley, a region renowned for its innovation and wealth, Santa Clara has struggled for decades to keep pace with its aging infrastructure.

Many of its city facilities — parks, community centers, fire stations and swimming pools — reached the end of their expected lifespan years ago. But Santa Clara historically hasn’t had the revenue streams to maintain or replace its physical assets, leading to what is now a whopping $624 million in unfunded infrastructure needs, according to City Manager Jovan Grogan.

The ballooning problem came to a head earlier his year when the George F. Haines International Swim Center — a storied facility widely considered to be Santa Clara’s crown jewel — closed over safety concerns following decades of neglect.

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Santa Clara’s plight is not unique. Cities across the Bay Area are grappling with similarly aging infrastructure and significant funding challenges to address deferred maintenance.

“It’s literally the cost of replacing many of our facilities that were built in the 50’s and 60’s,” Grogan said. “Many of them are aging at the same time.”

In neighboring San Jose, the maintenance backlog for the city’s parks alone is more than $544 million, city spokesperson Carolina Camarena estimated. And across the bay in Berkeley, the city’s unfunded infrastructure is expected to be $2.1 billion by the end of this fiscal year.

It’s a symptom of the suburban sprawl that ignited after World War II when the region began to boom and large swaths of single-family homes shot up. Whole neighborhoods of low density housing that stretched far across cities meant more roads, sewer lines and other infrastructure to maintain.

At the time, many cities relied on property taxes to generate revenues, said Michael Lane, the state policy director for urban think tank SPUR. But when California voters passed Proposition 13 in 1978, effectively limiting property tax increases, things changed.

It’s a symptom of the suburban sprawl that ignited after World War II when the region began to boom and large swaths of single-family homes shot up. Whole neighborhoods of low density housing that stretched far across cities meant more roads, sewer lines and other infrastructure to maintain.

At the time, many cities relied on property taxes to generate revenues, said Michael Lane, the state policy director for urban think tank SPUR. But when California voters passed Proposition 13 in 1978, effectively limiting property tax increases, things changed.

Click here to read the full article in the Mercury News