Some senators voted to ban gifts, then accepted them

Even after state senators overwhelmingly approved a ban on certain gifts to state lawmakers, some of the same legislators kept accepting them.

On May 31, Sen. Anthony Cannella, R-Modesto, and most of his colleagues voted to prevent themselves from receiving free concert, sports and theme park tickets from businesses that lobby the state. Yet in June, Cannella received tickets to the U.S. Open golf championship from AT&T, worth $420. 

Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Van Nuys, also voted for the ban, then accepted $340 in Walt Disney World tickets. Sen. Curren Price, D-Los Angeles, another supporter of the ban, picked up $168 worth of Disneyland tickets courtesy of The Walt Disney Co.

Cannella said in an email that he supported the bill because "there is merit to restricting the types of gifts that can be given to the legislature." 

"I can only speak for myself in that if I am given tickets to a sporting event, I am not influenced by those who provide them to me," he said. "I make decisions based upon what is in the best interest of my constituents and the people of California."

Padilla and Price did not respond to requests for comment.

After its near-unanimous approval in the Senate, SB 1426's author, Sen. Sam Blakeslee, R-San Luis Obispo, was optimistic about his bill [PDF].

"This is the furthest this legislation has ever gotten," he said in an interview earlier this month.

After years of trying to restrict gifts with bills that ended up dying in committee, Blakeslee thought he had finally written a passable bill by banning only those gifts with "no public interest, no public purpose and the types of gifts that are very difficult to defend," he said. 

Nevertheless, the bill died in the Assembly Appropriations Committee last week without a vote. Committee consultant Chuck Nicol said the bill was held because it contained "significant General Fund administrative costs."

Indeed, the state ethics agency opposed the bill because it wouldn't pay for the costs to implement the new regulations. The Fair Political Practices Commission estimated that the rule changes would cost $200,000 to revise rule manuals, field questions and complaints, and conduct investigations, according to spokeswoman Tara Stock. Under current rules, gifts are capped at $420 per year from any one source.

But there's a simpler reason for why legislators buried the bill, said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California: "They like getting gifts."

"Just when you think that it's impossible to overstate the political tone deafness of the California state Legislature, they find a way to prove you wrong," he said.

"It's not clear whether members of the state Senate are more attuned to the voting public or if they passed it because they knew it would die in the Assembly," he said.

Axing the bill in committee meant that "nobody has to cast an embarrassing vote, but it's an extraordinary missed opportunity for a Legislature that's not held in particularly high regard."

Members of the Assembly committee that nixed the bill had their own free fun and recreation on the line.

AT&T treated two of them – Assemblywoman Nora Campos, D-San Jose, and Assemblyman Ricardo Lara, D-South Gate – to a concert by popular Mexican pop-rock band Maná in April. The tickets, which AT&T doled out to other legislators as well, cost between $81 and $93.

Another committee member, Assembly Majority Leader Charles Calderon, D-City of Industry, went to the Universal Studios Islands of Adventure theme park in Florida in June, with tickets worth $278 provided by Comcast. The same month, he went to Disney World with free tickets from Disney worth $261. His son, Assembly candidate Ian Calderon, also got free tickets to both amusement parks.

Campos, Lara and Charles Calderon did not respond to requests for comment.

Blakeslee, for his part, isn't running for re-election. Disappointed after his legislation petered out, he said in a statement: "The public is paying attention and expects the Legislature to get its house in order. It is only a matter of time before this loophole is closed."

Story courtesy of our media partners at California Watch (A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting)

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