SACRAMENTO -- East Bay Assemblyman Rob Bonta last year took in a performance by a hip-hop dance crew called the Jabbawockeez at the Luxor Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. San Jose Assemblywoman Nora Campos went to Disneyland. San Francisco Sen. Leland Yee sat ringside for a bloody night of mixed marital arts fighting. And Central Coast Sen. Bill Monning got to see the sea otters at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
All for free.
The state lawmakers received and properly reported the tickets as gifts, but under legislation introduced Thursday by a group of Democratic state senators, accepting those kinds of gifts in the future would be a misdemeanor.
The three-bill package aims to tighten the rules for lawmakers and lobbyists, shrinking the annual cap on non-travel-related gifts to state officials from $440 to $200, blocking lobbyists from holding fundraisers in their homes and banning some gifts -- such as concert and sporting event tickets -- outright.
If the legislation is evetually signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown, it would represent the most significant reforms to state ethics laws in 20 years, said Gary Winuk, chief of enforcement for the Fair Political Practices Commission, the state's political watchdog.
The proposed changes to California's Political Reform Act come just weeks after state Sen. Roderick Wright, D-Inglewood, was convicted of voter fraud and perjury for lying about his legal residence, and after Sen. Ronald Calderon, D-Montebello, was indicted on federal corruption charges for allegedly taking bribes while in office. Also, last month prominent Sacramento lobbyist Kevin Sloat was slapped with a record $133,500 fine for improperly providing pricey wine, liquor and cigars at numerous political fundraisers he held at his home.
"Year after year, concerns are raised about some political practices currently permitted under state law," said Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento. "The good legislative work we produce is only as strong as the people's perception and trust in their state Legislature."
Steinberg unveiled the legislation alongside Sen. Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, likely the next leader of the state Senate, and Sen. Ricardo Lara, D-Bell Gardens, who leads a working group on ethics.
"There's no question that recent events are testing the public's faith in how our government does its work," Lara said. "We must restore the public trust."
Gifts from companies to lawmakers encourages the type of inappropriate relationship that can lead to quid pro quo agreements, said Sarah Swanbeck, policy advocate for Common Cause California, a nonprofit group that advocates for transparency in government. Legislation to eliminate some of the gifts is vitally needed, she said.
"While there has been much attention to illegal or potentially illegal activity among lawmakers, it's just as important to look at things that are now considered legal activities," Swanbeck said. "Those types of things should raise just as much ethical concern."
In total, Bay Area lawmakers reported accepting gifts worth about $46,000 and travel worth close to $63,000 in 2013. Bonta got the most, reporting $5,000 in gifts and $10,000 in travel.
De Leon said the proposed legislation seeks to ban the most "egregious" gifts, such as golf outings, spa treatments and concert tickets. But he and Lara defended the value of free trips lawmakers have taken around the world to countries like China, Norway and Poland.
"These are very educational gifts," Lara said. "As we conduct business as the eighth largest economy in the world, we have to see what other countries are doing with energy and environmental innovation."
Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, has introduced a bill that would cap lawmakers' travel-related gifts to $5,000 a year, but it is not part of the package of bills unveiled Thursday.
Getting the bills through the Senate, however, will require a two-thirds vote, which means Democrats will have to coax some Republican lawmakers to support them. Before Wright and Calderon took voluntary leaves of absence from their duties in Sacramento, Democrats had a supermajority in the Senate.
Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar, said the proposals should have been developed by the bipartisan Legislative Ethics Committee, instead of a temporary working group formed by Steinberg and led by Lara.
"It's kind of interesting that the people leading the charge ... were perhaps highlighted in other investigations earlier this year," Huff told the Associated Press.
All three of the Democrats who promoted the package of bills at Thursday's Capitol news conference were mentioned during the Calderon investigation, even though none has been accused of wrongdoing.
Steinberg and DeLeon were referenced in the indictment, but prosecutors have told both men that they're not targets of the investigation into Calderon's activities. An FBI search warrant affidavit linked Lara to a campaign fund that gave $25,000 to a nonprofit committee run by Calderon's brother and co-defendant Thomas Calderon, a former assemblyman.
Steinberg called Huff's remark "ridiculous," and de León said it's an example of "political gamesmanship."