How Free Trips for California Legislators Lead to Bills


PUBLISHED MAY 5, 2023 1:46 P.M.

  Illustration by Miguel Gutierrez Jr., CalMatters; iStock

BY JEREMIA KIMELMAN and ALEXEI KOSEFF, CalMatters

After touring Portland and Seattle in 2020 to research waste disposal, state Sen. Ben Allen, a Santa Monica Democrat, successfully carried a measure to restrict which plastics can bear the triangular arrow recycling symbol.

Because of a study trip to Japan in November, Assemblymember Devon Mathis, a Visalia Republican, introduced a bill this year, which failed in committee, that would have required the state to procure more electricity from nuclear power plants instead of natural gas facilities.

And inspired by a visit to Portugal two years ago to learn about offshore wind farms, Assemblymember Laura Friedman, a Glendale Democrat, is pursuing legislation this session to streamline the approval of electrical infrastructure projects such as new transmission lines.

“I came back and sat down with the utilities and said, ‘What do I need to do so that it doesn’t take you two to five years to upgrade a substation to be able to put in charging, for instance, or to bring clean energy?’” Friedman told CalMatters. “That came directly out of that trip.”

All of these tours were organized and paid for by the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that for the past four decades has been taking legislators and other state officials on free trips to learn about policy issues — trips funded and attended by representatives of companies and interest groups with business before the state.

The foundation’s study tours and conferences — which take place everywhere from Napa to the Netherlands, Lake Tahoe to Iceland — are by far the biggest source of sponsored travel that lawmakers annually report. They accounted for about 40% of the nearly $1 million in trips that California legislators took in 2022, according to a CalMatters analysis of their statements of economic interest.

The foundation organizes several two-day policy conferences across California each year, but it gets more attention for its lengthier study trips to international destinations, including Mexico, Switzerland and France, Chile, Germany and the Czech Republic, Australia and Singapore over the past decade. 

Last year, 32 of the state’s 120 legislators, from both parties, attended at least one study trip or conference hosted by the foundation.

These events, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars per legislator for international trips, are funded through membership fees paid by CFEE’s board of directors — 92 somewhat strange bedfellows, including major corporations, oil companies, environmental groups, construction trade unions, public utilities and water districts.

The foundation does not disclose how much it charges board members, though some have publicly shared figures in the tens of thousands of dollars. According to CFEE, no single member contributes more than 2% of its annual budget, which was about $2 million in 2019, the most recent tax record that is publicly available.

The trips serve as an influential tool for shaping policymaking at the state Capitol, with lawmakers returning from their far-flung travels with new perspectives and ideas on energy, the environment, water, transportation and housing. CFEE has tracked dozens of bills over the years that resulted directly from experiences on their trips, senior director of research and operations Wyatt Lundy told Waste Advantage magazine last fall. The foundation declined to share that list with CalMatters.

The sponsored travel also draws regular criticism for giving wealthy interest groups an intimate venue for relationship-building that is beyond the reach of most Californians.

“If I’m holding a seminar just to provide information and advocate for my policy views, I can do that without spending money,” said Sean McMorris of California Common Cause, a nonprofit that advocates for governance in the public interest. “I can invite them to a webinar or a conference that I don’t pay them to attend.”

But legislators who attend defend the study tours as educational and serious-minded, with a balance of perspectives from across industries.

“Don't go on a CFEE trip if you don’t want to see factories and infrastructure,” Friedman said.

Jay Hansen, president and CEO of the foundation, declined an interview request. In an email, he stressed that the trips are not designed to pitch legislation, but rather to help lawmakers “better understand complex issues, witness best practices, and contemplate policy implications.”

“CFEE does not create public policy; we do not craft bills or get involved in legislative debates in or outside of the Capitol,” Hansen wrote. “We hope that our work will lead to specific policy advances — but the process of making legislation will be a matter taken up by legislators.”

Unifying Political Foes

Created in 1979 by labor economist Don Vial and former Gov. Pat Brown, among others, to focus on modernizing the state’s economy and infrastructure, the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy brings together people who might not normally be at the same political table.

Groups that spend a lot of time and money fighting each other often sit side by side — the vice chairpersons of the board are Catherine Reheis-Boyd, president of the Western States Petroleum Association, which represents the oil industry, and Katelyn Roedner Sutter, the California state director for the Environmental Defense Fund. Both declined interview requests, as did board secretary Curt Augustine, senior director of state affairs for the Alliance of Automotive Innovation.

In an email, Robert Balgenorth, a former president of the State Building and Construction Trades Council who serves as the chairperson of CFEE’s board of directors, said the foundation proves “the value of bringing together a diverse set of leaders to explore best practices and solutions to some of California’s most vexing environmental and economic challenges.”

“I firmly believe California is well served by this approach,” he wrote, “a mutual recognition that California succeeds when people, organizations, and political partisans look past their differences and come together with an open mind about our challenges and opportunities.”

The organizations on the board do not plan the conferences or study trips — “CFEE staff is entrusted to organize and conduct all CFEE events independently of any single member, industry, policy direction or area of concern,” Hansen wrote — but they do help shape the foundation’s focus and send representatives to its events.

The Sacramento Municipal Utility District has been part of CFEE since 2009 and currently pays $38,000 for its annual membership. Laura Lewis, chief legal officer and general counsel for the community-owned utility, serves as the treasurer of the board and has participated in two study trips since joining in 2017.

“CFEE allows us the opportunity to engage in thoughtful dialogue with key stakeholders so that we can understand different perspectives and foster collaborative partnerships” as the utility pursues “an ambitious goal to eliminate carbon emissions from our power supply by 2030,” Lewis wrote in an email. “It enables us to educate and align policymakers and other regional leaders on clean energy efforts that provide environmental benefits, drive inclusive economic development, and improve the quality of life for all.”

Long Days, Packed Schedules

The invitation-only foreign trips, which take place once or twice a year, feature packed schedules of presentations, panels, and on-site tours led by local officials and industry representatives. Days can start at “7 a.m. and you have to be on time until late at night,” said Sen. Lena Gonzalez, a Long Beach Democrat who went to Iceland and Japan last year.

Attendees said they travel alongside the foundation’s board members, with meals and bus rides often turning into deep policy discussions or even debates between opposing interests. There is also occasional sightseeing and limited free time that lawmakers said allows them to process what they’ve been learning about.

An agenda provided by CFEE for its most recent study trip to Denmark last month with 10 legislators showed receptions with the U.S. ambassador and Danish officials; tours of water treatment, heating and biogas facilities and an offshore wind farm; and a day of free time during the weeklong visit.

Trip delegations are deliberately diverse, Hansen said, drawing veteran and rookie lawmakers from across the political spectrum and the state, and about 15 to 20 board members from across industries, depending on the topic of the tour. While legislators must disclose when they accept sponsored travel, the foundation refuses to say which board members attend the trips.

Legislators said the trips are useful because they see projects and technology up close that they might not have access to in California, which can change their opinion on policy. Gonzalez revised her plans to extend the state’s expiring clean transportation program because of what she saw in Japan, introducing a bill this year to prioritize funding for decarbonizing medium- and heavy-duty transportation sectors such as freight and shipping.

Read more ‘How free trips for California legislators lead to bills‘ on CalMatters.

CalMatters.org is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.

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