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

By Jeremia Kimelman, CALMATTERS

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. 
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. 

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. 

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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 we do 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.”

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