Array of gifts given to California lawmakers in 2015

As reported by the Los Angeles Times:

State legislators accepted more than $892,000 in gifts last year, including foreign trips, expensive dinners, concert and sports tickets, golf games, spa treatments, Disneyland admissions and bottles of tequila and wine, according to filings released Wednesday.

Lawmakers had their expenses covered by others for educational and trade trips to France, China, Argentina, Australia, Taiwan, Singapore, Mexico and Israel.

In fact, travel costs dominate the gift tallies from last year with a large number of lawmakers deciding to fly overseas for conferences or policy meetings paid for entirely by influential interest groups and foundations.

The travel included 21 lawmakers who attended a conference in Maui in November at a cost of about $3,000 per person, paid for by a nonprofit group funded by oil and tobacco firms and other interests lobbying the Legislature. …

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Capitol heats up with end-of-session rush of legislation

As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle:

SACRAMENTO — With more than 300 bills and a Friday deadline to vote on them, the state Legislature is on a hurried pace this week to decide weighty issues ranging from how much Californians will pay in taxes to how ambitiously the state will combat climate change.

The end-of-session push will also include legislation on whether doctors should be allowed to help terminal patients die earlier, whether students who failed the high school exit exam in past years should be awarded their diplomas, and whether the smoking age should be raised from 18 to 21.

The Friday deadline coincides, coincidentally, with the day Sacramento throws a huge heroes’ parade near the Capitol for the Americans who stopped a gunman on a French train — and on what is expected to be the Capital’s hottest day of a weeklong heat wave. The temperature is forecast to peak at 107 degrees.

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Assisted Suicide Takes Step Forward in CA Legislature

NeedleWith doctors’ groups divided, legislation that would authorize assisted suicide cleared a key hurdle in Sacramento, triggering a fresh round of controversy.

Senate Bill 128, the so-called “End of Life Option Act,” was introduced earlier this year by state Sens. Lois Wolk, D-Davis, and Bill Monning, D-Carmel. Modeled on an Oregon law governing physician-assisted suicide, SB128 set out a series of conditions that would legalize but limit the practice.

Retooled after it initially stalled, the bill has now passed through the state Senate appropriations committee. “Backers of the assisted suicide proposal made some changes to the bill to gain more support after it initially met with strong opposition from hospitals, doctors, anti-abortion organizations and disability rights groups,” Reuters reported. “As currently written, it allows hospitals and medical providers to refuse to comply with a patient’s wish for assisted suicide, and also makes it illegal to pressure or manipulate people into ending their lives.”

The bill’s final language required that medication be self-administered by a mentally competent patient diagnosed by two physicians with six months or less to live, according to California Healthline.

Deepening controversy

One key to the bill’s committee clearance, Reuters noted, was the California Medical Association, which “still opposes the concept of assisted suicide” but “removed its formal opposition to the bill.”

Yet this attempt at a compromise position has left many palliative doctors unsatisfied. Among those supportive of assisted suicide, some have argued that all patients should have a right to avoid discomfort at the end of life — an objective even diligent palliative care cannot always meet.

Others, arguing against the practice, insisted that affirmatively ending patients’ lives was an unnecessary and crude response to the discomfort of death and dying. Newport Beach doctor Vincent Nguyen told Southern California Public Radio that patients’ typical fears — “about pain, losing control or being a burden on family — can be managed with spiritual and emotional counseling and pain medications, all of which are part of the palliative care toolkit.”

Dr. Ira Byock, a palliative care physician in Torrance, went further. Contrary to their wishes, he warned, the chronically ill often “spend their last weeks in intensive care units, hooked up to life support,” according to SCPR. “To address this problem, he says that all doctors — from medical students to veteran practitioners — should be required to have training in end of life conversations.”

A moral shift

As SB128 came one step closer to becoming law, analysts began a closer look at how much popular support the bill might attract. As has long been the case on high-profile and hot-button issues, California has been seen as a bellwether in the struggle over how the law treats those who want to die.

Despite gathering momentum to legalize assisted suicide, public opinion has remained split. But in-state and nationwide, data suggested an ongoing shift in mores that benefits how SB128 is perceived. “Nearly seven in 10 Americans (68 percent) say doctors should be legally allowed to assist terminally ill patients in committing suicide, up 10 percentage points from last year,” Gallup reported. “More broadly, support for euthanasia has risen nearly 20 points in the last two years and stands at the highest level in more than a decade.”

The shift has left opponents pivoting to warn that even relatively narrow authorizations of the practice would lead to ever-broader accommodations down the road. “In the Netherlands, after many years, legal assisted suicide for the dying has evolved into death on demand, with six out of 10 doctors admitting to killing a patient who was simply ‘tired of   living,’” wrote  Jacqueline Harvey of Euthanasia Prevention International at National Review. “California is approaching that slippery slope.”

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Ling Ling Chang Will Vie for State Senate in 2016

lingling changAssemblywoman Ling-Ling Chang, R-Diamond Bar, has announced her campaign to replace termed-out State Senator Bob Huff.

Chang’s campaign for the 29th State Senate district sets up a showdown with former Irvine Mayor Sukhee Kang for a seat that Democrats see as an opportunity to reclaim their supermajority in the upper house. Her campaign came at the urging of the Senate Republican Caucus, which sees the former mayor of Diamond Bar as the strongest candidate to replace the termed-out Senate Republican leader.

On Friday morning, the Republican Assemblywoman, who has been on the job for less than six months, announced her campaign with endorsements from Huff, Rep. Ed Royce and Asm. Young Kim. With a united front behind a top-tier candidate, Republicans hope to take the 29th Senate seat off the table in 2016.

Chang: Self-Described Tech Geek

In just her first term in the State Assembly, Chang has quickly risen to the top of the freshman class. A powerhouse fundraiser, Chang raised more than $632,000 for her 2014 Assembly campaign.

That fundraising prowess helped her land a spot on Asm. GOP leader Kristin Olsen’s leadership team as Republican Whip. In addition to serving as Vice Chair of the powerful Assembly Rules Committee, Chang holds key spots on the Appropriations Committee, Business & Professions Committee and the Privacy & Consumer Protection Committee.


Her current district includes substantial portions of the 29th Senate district. Prior to representing the 55th Assembly District, she served on the Diamond Bar City Council and Walnut Valley Water District Board of Directors.

“My mom didn’t understand why a young girl would be so obsessed with computers, so she would try and prohibit me from going online. I found my way around it until my mom started removing the keyboard,” Chang told the Sacramento Bee earlier this year. “Now she completely regrets it. Technology, to me, it’s like second nature. I can actually work something without having to read the user manual.”

The self-described “tech geek” has endeared herself to her colleagues by being a team player. In advance of the 2014 general election, she contributed more than $60,000 to party committees and legislative targets, including colleagues Kim, David Hadley, Tom Lackey, Marc Steinorth, Catharine Baker and Eric Linder. However, she’s also stumbled in her first few months in the state legislature, backing a plan to bring back redevelopment that is strongly criticized by property rights advocates.

Shaw expected to withdraw from the race

Chang’s candidacy changes the dynamics of the race and likely brings to an end the short-lived candidacy of fellow Republican Tim Shaw, who currently works as an aide to Huff. A La Habra City Councilman, Shaw has struggled to raise money since announcing his campaign in February. He had yet to file a campaign finance report, according to the state’s financial disclosure database.

Sukhee KangAs a result of Shaw’s perceived weaknesses, Democrats recruited former Irvine mayor Sukhee Kang to run for the seat. During his final term as mayor of Irvine, Kang won praise from liberal Democrats for his plan to ban single-use plastic bags. That’s helped him secure early backing from prominent statewide Democrats, including Senate Pr­­esident Pro Tem Kevin de León and former Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.

Kang’s candidacy has its own baggage. Namely, he only recently packed his bags and moved into the district. He’s also weighed down by the ongoing audit of the Orange County Great Park. According to OC Weekly, while on the Irvine city council, in an alliance with former councilman Larry Agran and councilwoman Beth Krom, “Sukhee Kang diverted more than $174,000 per month in park funds to three political operatives — George Urch, Chris Townsend and Arnold Forde — allegedly performing ‘public relations’ for a government park that still hasn’t been built — and then shrugged their collective shoulders about why there was no money left for the noble endeavor.”

In 2012, Kang unsuccessfully challenged Rep. John Campbell for the 45th Congressional District. A first-generation Korean immigrant, Kang hoped to appeal to the district’s more than 89,000 Asian American voters in a uphill race against Shaw, a white Republican.

As the first Taiwanese-born woman to serve in the state Assembly, Chang undercuts the Democrat’s campaign strategy. According to voter registration statistics from Political Data, Inc., there are approximately 10,000 more registered voters with Chinese surnames than Korean surnames. Voters in the 29th Senate district have requested nearly twice as many Chinese language ballots than Korean ballots.

Kang’s campaign adviser Garry South seemed unfazed by Chang’s announcement. “See ya in a presidential year!” he said, welcoming the news.

Republicans hold a 3.5 percent edge in voter registration, with 37.3 percent of all registered voters in the district, according The district’s high overall registration rate makes it difficult for Democrats to invest in a registration program to close that gap. The GOP has 15,000 more voters than Democrats. Orange County makes up more than 70 percent of the 29th State Senate district, which also includes portions of Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties. In 2012, Huff retained the seat with 55.1 percent of the vote, after spending minimal funds on his reelection campaign.

Under the state’s revised term limits law, Chang is eligible to serve two terms in the State Senate as well as one additional term in the State Assembly.

New Bill Would Allow Cities to Ratchet Up Sales Taxes Even Higher

LAO Sales Tax State Comparison ChartAlthough Californians already pay some of the highest sales taxes in the nation, a bill that recently passed the Assembly paves the way for the sales tax to go even higher. Assembly Bill 464 increases to 3 percent (from the current 2 percent cap) the maximum sales tax rate that can be levied by local governments.

That potential 3 percent sales tax levied by cities and counties is in addition to the statewide 7.5 percent sales tax, which could result in a combined 10.5 percent tax in some areas of the state. Tax hikes require majority voter approval for general purpose levies and two-thirds approval for special purposes.

The average state and local combined sales tax in California is 8.5 percent, according to a recent report by the Legislative Analyst’s Office. The lowest rate of 7.5 percent predominates in rural counties, while the highest rates are in urban areas. Residents in eight cities in the Bay Area and Los Angeles County are currently paying a 10 percent sales tax because their counties have received exemptions from the 2 percent cap.

“AB464 is about local control and flexibility,” said the bill’s author Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, D-San Mateo, on the Assembly floor May 14. “It gives local voters the ability to raise revenue to fund important public services, including transportation, public safety and libraries. This bill is crucial, because if just one city in a county reaches the [2 percent] cap, then the entire county is precluded from having voters raise any additional taxes, hindering key transportation projects or attempts to enhance public safety.

LAO Sales Tax Chart“As a result, a flurry of legislation has been signed into law creating individual cap exceptions across the state. AB464 reduces the need for this one-off legislation by lifting the cap statewide. Please join me in granting voters the ability to raise sufficient revenue to fund public services locally in California.”

There was no debate on the bill, which passed along party lines 45-31. It’s supported by California’s counties and their transportation commissions along with government employee unions.

The California Taxpayers Association issued an opposition “floor alert” on the bill that was signed by numerous business and local taxpayer organizations. It states that “California already has the highest sales and use tax rate in the country,” and provides three arguments against raising the cap:

  • Increases the cost of doing business. Businesses face a significant sales and use tax burden in California, and business purchases account for roughly 40 percent of all sales and use tax collected by state and local governments. California is one of the few states that requires businesses to pay sales and use tax on manufacturing and R&D equipment bought and used in the state, making California a very expensive state to operate in, particularly when the sales tax rate is 10 percent in some California cities.
  • The sales and use tax is a regressive tax that impacts California’s most vulnerable residents, making it more difficult for them to budget and purchase everyday necessities. California’s economy is improving, resulting in improved revenue collections this year. Now is the wrong time to ask taxpayers, especially those that can least afford it, to spend more of their income to pay taxes.
  • Raises the sales tax rate to 11 percent in some areas. [T]he Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority imposes a 0.5 percent tax in excess of current limitations for all of Los Angeles County. This bill would authorize this district to increase its rate to 11 percent. This level of taxation is excessive, and exacerbates the problems described above.

That last argument may be in error. The bill caps the city/county-levied sales tax to 3 percent above the statewide rate, which would equal a maximum of 10.5 percent even for districts with current 0.5 percent cap exceptions.

The immediate beneficiaries of AB464 are Alameda, Contra Costa, Los Angeles and San Mateo counties, which have all reached the 2 percent limit, as well as Marin, San Diego and Sonoma counties, which are near the 2 percent limit, according to the Assembly’s legislative analysis.

California’s sales tax brought in $48 billion in 2013–14. About half of it goes to the state government’s general fund, making it the second largest general fund source after the income tax, which accounts for two-thirds. One percent of the sales tax goes to cities’ and counties’ general funds; the rest is aimed at specific programs such as public safety and transportation.

LAO Sales Tax Increase Chart

The statewide sales tax rate began at 2.5 percent in 1933. Although the tax rate has tripled since then and its revenue has increased at a 7.3 percent annual rate, the sales tax has actually decreased as a share of total state revenue. “In the 1950s, the sales tax accounted for the majority of General Fund revenue, while the personal income tax contributed less than one-fifth,” the LAO report said. “Since then, personal income tax revenue has grown rapidly due to growth in real incomes, the state’s progressive rate structure and increased capital gains.”

In 1969, cities and counties were granted the authorization to pass their own sales tax increases, mostly benefiting transportation improvements.

Although not nearly as volatile a revenue source as the income tax, revenue from the sales tax can vary significantly depending on the state of the economy. In 1974-75 sales tax revenue increased 22 percent, but in 2008-09 it declined 10 percent. Overall, however, adjusting for increased rate changes, inflation and population, sales tax revenue has remained roughly constant per capita since 1970–71, according to the LAO.

AB464 will next be considered by the Senate Rules Committee.

California Senate OKs controversial school vaccine bill

As reported by the Associated Press:

State senators passed a bill Thursday aimed at increasing California’s school immunization rates after a measles outbreak at Disneyland last year.

The bill was approved on a 25-10 vote after a series of emotional hearings this year at which opponents called for preserving parental rights on the matter.

The measure would prohibit parents from seeking vaccine exemptions for their children because of religious or personal beliefs.

The bill, which now goes to the Assembly, would make…

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They can’t vote, but undocumented immigrants are California’s newest political force

As reported by the Orange County Register:

They live in the country illegally. They pepper their rallies with the chant “undocumented and unafraid.” And they cannot vote.

Still, some politicians have heard their voices.

In California, undocumented immigrants have political clout.

“Today, we remind the rest of the nation that California is different,” said state Senate President Pro Tem Kevin de León, in an April news conference to promote 10 bills he and others believe will help people in the country illegally.

The proposals ranged from a $1 billion plan to extend state-subsidized health care to the undocumented, to the establishment of a new state office that would make it easier for some immigrant crime victims to avoid deportation.

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Dem v. Dem State Senate Battle Reflects New Political Split in CA

Photo credit:

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California’s politics remain polarized, but not just via the traditional division of Republicans vs. Democrats. As reported here two months ago in the post “Issue of Government Unions Divide Candidates More Than Party Affiliation,” there were two California State Senate contests that remained unresolved after the November 2014 election. One of them, pitting Republican John Moorlach against Republican Don Wagner for the 37th Senate District, was settled on March 17th. Moorlach, who has fought to restore financial sustainability to public employee pension systems, was opposed by government unions. Wagner, also a conservative, but less outspoken than Moorlach on the issue of pension reform, was endorsed by government unions. Moorlach won.

The other race, originally pitting three Democrats against each other for the 7th Senate District, has narrowed to a contest between two candidates that will be settled on May 19th, Democrat Steve Glazer vs. Democrat Susan Bonilla.

It will be interesting to see how voters in a largely Democratic district respond in a race that is not between candidates from opposing parties. Glazer is a fiscal conservative who is progressive on virtually all of the issues important to Democrats. Bonilla offers up many similar positions, with one important exception: Glazer has stood up to government unions on critical issues, to the point where government unions do not consider him reliable. As a result, Bonilla is receiving cash and endorsements from the unions representing our public servants, all of it, of course, money that originated from taxpayers.

Here’s a list of some of Bonilla’s government union endorsements:

California Association of Highway Patrolmen
California Professional Firefighters
California State Sheriffs’ Association
California State Coalition of Probation Organizations
CALFIRE Local 2881
Peace Officers Research Association of California
Deputy Sheriffs Association of Alameda County
Antioch Police Officer’s Association
Concord Police Officer’s Association
Contra Costa County Deputy Sheriffs Association
Contra Costa County Deputy District Attorney’s Association
Brentwood Police Officers Association
Livermore-Pleasanton Firefighters, Local 1974
Livermore Police Officer’s Association
Pittsburg Police Officers Association
Pleasanton Police Officers Association
Probation Peace Officers Association of Contra Costa County
San Ramon Valley Firefighters Association, Local 3546
United Professional Firefighters of Contra Costa County, Local 1230

Bonilla campaignOne has to ask why so many public safety officials are endorsing Bonilla rather than Glazer, and it is fair to wonder if their endorsement has anything to do with the positions of these candidates on issues and policies relating to public safety. Take a look at this flyer from the Bonilla campaign:

As can be seen, Contra Costa County District Attorney Mark Peterson and Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern, both apparently Republicans, are touting the pro public safety record of Susan Bonilla. But would they have made these statements if Susan Bonilla was challenging their unions on fiscal issues relating to pensions and compensation?

From that perspective, candidate Steven Glazer is a threat to government unions. For ten years starting in 2004, Glazer was a councilmember, then mayor, in Orinda, one of the most fiscally responsible cities in the state. In a California Policy Center study released late last year entitled “California’s Most Financially Stressed Cities and Counties,” every city and county in California was ranked in order of its risk of insolvency. Orinda was ranked 369 out of 491, putting it in the top 25% in terms of financial health. More significantly, in a subsequent California Policy Center study entitled “California City Pension Burdens,” every city in the state was ranked according to how much pension contributions strain their budgets. Orinda wasn’t even on this list, because they are among only nine cities in California who don’t have a defined benefit plan for their employees. They use a defined contribution plan instead.

Hopefully the reader will forgive this prurient dive into personal financial data, but when public employees endorse political candidates, how much they make is relevant. Contra Costa County District Attorney Mark Peterson made $322,180 in 2013, an amount that included $111,897 in employer paid benefits. Alameda County Sheriff Greg Ahern made $556,268 in 2013; an astonishing $266,130 of that in the form of employer paid benefits. The vast majority of these benefit payments were to cover the required employer pension contributions. These men would have to be saints to have an objective perspective on an election that could result in a fiscal conservative holding office who is conversant in pension finance and formerly presided over a town that offers defined contribution plans to their employees instead of defined benefit pensions.

To drive the point home, take a look at the salaries and benefits for Alameda County workers, the pensions for Alameda County retirees, the salaries for Contra Costa County workers, and the pensions for Contra Costa County retirees. No conflict of interest there.

In the race for California’s 7th Senate District, Government unions have already spent over $2.0 million to support Susan Bonilla and oppose Steve Glazer. Download this spreadsheet to view the latest contributions through 4-20-2015, or click on the following four links to follow the money pouring in to make sure a fiscal conservative Senator does not head to Sacramento on May 19th:

Bonilla for Senate 2015, Putting the East Bay First
Bonilla for Senate 2015
Bonilla for Senate 2016
Working Families Opposing Glazer for Senate 2015

California’s Republican leadership, to the extent they tepidly claim to support pension reform while taking money from public sector unions and doing nothing, should understand as clearly as the Democratic leadership who avoid the issue entirely: It doesn’t matter what else you believe, or what you stand for, or what’s in your platform. Government unions support candidates who fight to preserve and increase the pay and benefits of unionized government employees, at the same time as they fight to minimize the accountability of unionized government employees. Across California, their demands, almost invariably fulfilled by politicians they control, have taken money away from other services, including infrastructure investment, and nearly destroyed California’s system of public education.

This is having a polarizing impact in both parties, and rendering the distinction between Democrat and Republican less important than whether or not they are willing to stand up to government unions.

*   *   *

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

The Unintended Consequences of CA’s Top Two Primary System

California’s new “top-two” primary system has some Golden State Democrats worried. Though they’re confident about holding onto the seat being vacated by departing U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer in 2016, Democrats may come to rue the new set-up, which allows the two top vote-getters to advance to the general election, regardless of party affiliation. In a low-turnout primary crowded with vote-splitting Democratic candidates, it’s not out of the question that two Republicans could lead the field. That almost happened in one of last year’s statewide primaries.

In the June 2014 primary for state controller, two Republicans squared off against three Democrats and a Green Party candidate. Republican David Evans, an unknown accountant from Central California, spent just $600 on the race but managed to garner 850,109 votes thanks to his bare-bones ballot statement—“Most qualified for Controller”—and the clever ballot designation he put after his name: “Chief Financial Officer.” Fresno mayor Ashley Swearengin (a Republican) eventually won the primary, but Evans held the second-place spot for several days while votes were counted—putting him ahead of the two leading Democrats—until he was finally edged out. He finished fourth, with less than one percentage point separating him from the second-place finisher, Democrat Betty Yee. If Evans had held on, two Republicans would have competed in the general election, ensuring the first statewide GOP victory in almost a decade. Yee went on to beat Swearengin in November.

For Democrats, it was an uncomfortably close call. Democratic political consultant Garry South summarized the implications: “One of the lessons we’ve learned in ’12, and now in ’14, is that in a very low turnout primary, which this was, with a disproportionate share of Republicans turning out, Democrats have to be careful they don’t overload the ballot with candidates splitting too few Democratic voters.” These are the conditions of almost every California primary, however.

Reformers had hoped that the top-two primary structure would put more moderates on the general election ballot. It’s not yet clear that this is occurring. What’s certain is that the system is proving problematic for California’s Democrats, who have long dominated statewide offices. The reasons are two-fold. First, as South describes, with lower turnouts and higher percentages of Republicans participating, primaries are more challenging for California Democrats. Total voter participation figures still favor Democrats in these races, but it’s a much closer split than in the general election. Second, with a deeper bench of potential candidates, California Democrats have too many contenders for a limited number of statewide offices.

Even in traditional primaries, operatives of both parties have long practiced the art of “clearing the field” to limit the number of candidates on the ballot. The top-two primary amplifies the importance of field-clearing. Paradoxically, the new system was meant to weaken the political parties’ sway over the primary process, but it may wind up strengthening it. A reform intended to increase options for voters might actually reduce them.

The 2016 Senate primary is already exposing potential cleavages on the Democratic side. The first Democrat to declare for the seat being vacated by Boxer is state attorney general Kamala Harris, a woman of Jamaican-American and Indian descent. But discontent is mounting among Latino Democrats. The California Latino Legislative Caucus recently made a public call for a Latino to run for the Senate seat. Former Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa contemplated a run but bowed out this week. Latino attentions have shifted to Orange County congresswoman Loretta Sanchez and Los Angeles congressman Xavier Becerra.

As Los Angeles Times Sacramento columnist George Skelton recently wrote, “Latinos feel insulted by blacks. Angelenos are suspicious of San Franciscans. Democrats are squabbling. It’s inevitable. It’s the unintended consequence of a one-party dominated state.” And the unintended consequence of a top-two primary system may well be to exacerbate these conflicts.

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.

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