Democrats propose fewer, cheaper gifts for state lawmakers

With weeks of scandal headlines leaving what many worry is a collective cloud over the California Legislature, Democrats in the state Senate have decided it's time to do something.

"Perception matters," said Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento.

Steinberg and a group of his Democratic colleagues introduced legislation on Thursday they hope will help convince the public that gifts and perks aren't what serving under the Capitol dome is all about.

The bills take aim at the gifts given to elected officials by lobbyists, interest groups and others. Democrats billed the three proposals as the most significant changes to the state's Political Reform Act since the law's creation in 1974.

"The hard work of the Legislature is too important to be sidetracked by issues of the accountability of a few," said state Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, the leader of the Senate Democrats' working group on ethics and legislative reforms.

But the bills do not place an outright ban on gifts, as others have sought in the past. Nor do they prohibit legislators from accepting thousands of dollars in domestic and international travel.

The smallest, but longest standing, policy that would be eliminated would be the small monthly gifts that registered lobbyists are allowed to give to legislators – a $10 a month token gift that Jerry Brown, who championed the limit during his first gubernatorial run in 1974 as being nothing more than "two hamburgers and a Coke."

"All gifts will be banned from lobbyists," said state Sen. Kevin de Leon, D-Los Angeles. The Democratic senator, who will take over as Senate leader later this year, is carrying the lobbying ban bill, Senate Bill 1443.

The package of bills also includes shorter time spans between campaign finance reporting, and a lower maximum value on gifts an elected official can receive from any single person or group. That limit is currently $440 a year; the proposed legislation would ban gifts totaling more than $200.

Eight Democratic senators are either authors or co-authors of the bills. A review of each of those legislator's most recent gift disclosure forms, filed earlier this week, shows that almost all accepted gifts above the $200 limit in 2013. In addition to Steinberg, Lara, and de Leon, the list includes state Sen. Ellen Corbett, D-San Leandro; state Sen. Norma Torres, D-San Diego; and state Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel.

Only two of the senators involved in the reform efforts reported no gifts above the $200 limit, or none at all: state Sen. Richard Roth, D-Riverside, and state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo.

The proposals would also ban certain gifts that the Democrats say have no connection to legislating – including spa and golf packages, theme park tickets, concert and sporting event tickets, and cash or gift cards.

Four of the senators – Lara, de Leon, Monning, and Steinberg – each accepted concert or theme park tickets in 2013, gifts they now believe should be banned.

The package of changes does not address one of the biggest dollar amounts reported on annual disclosure forms – travel and lodging for what some critics call political junkets. Legislators say they believe many of those trips have value to discussing important policy issues, though Senator Hill has a bill introduced in January that would establish new dollar limits on allowable travel paid by outside groups.


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