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• Over the past 18 months, state politicians have reported $33.7 million in behested payouts, according to a Voice of San Diego review.
• These payments are different from campaign contributions. They're made "at the ‘behest’ of elected officials to be used for legislative, governmental or charitable purposes,” according to the state's political watchdog.
You’ve heard of campaign contributions, independent expenditures and political action committees. But, even those well-versed in Sacramento speak probably haven’t heard of behested payments.
Over the past 18 months, state constitutional officers, lawmakers and members of the Public Utilities Commission have reported $33.7 million in these payouts, according to a Voice of San Diego review of state disclosure records.
Wait, what are behested payments?
“These payments are not considered campaign contributions or gifts,” the state’s political watchdog explains, “but are payments made at the ‘behest’ of elected officials to be used for legislative, governmental or charitable purposes.”
Where traditional campaign contributions are pretty direct – Person A gives money to Politician B – behested payments are more roundabout – Person A gives money to Group C, to curry favor or goodwill with Politician B.
In some cases, the beneficiary is a charity or office directly controlled by the elected official. For example, when Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez hosted her annual Women of the Year event, her legislative office received more than $6,000 in support from Southwestern College for use of its conference room.
Under the Political Reform Act of 1974, government officials are required to disclose behested payments of $5,000 or more to the state Fair Political Practices Commission. Each official is required to file a separate disclosure form within 30 days of the payment, regardless of whether multiple officials are making the same request. That requirement greatly inflates the total amount of behested payments.
In March, San Diego’s legislative delegation urged the California Coastal Conservancy to provide $800,000 in financial support to the Maritime Museum Association of San Diego for a replica of the historic ship San Salvador. According to the FPPC’s behested payment database, State Sens. Joel Anderson, Ben Hueso and Marty Block signed the letter of support, along with their Assembly colleagues Rocky Chavez, Lorena Gonzalez, Brian Jones, Brian Maienschein, Shirley Weber and Speaker Toni Atkins.
Since 10 lawmakers signed the letter, the $800,000 grant gets recorded as $8 million worth of behested payments.
Behested payments commonly take the form of contributions to legislative caucuses, which run political advocacy programs, host fundraising events and provide scholarships. Much of the funding for these nonprofit entities comes from special interest groups that lobby the Legislature.
Block, who leads the California Jewish Legislative Caucus, has raised $20,000 this year for his caucus from the teachers union, optometrists, telecommunications association and insurance industry.
Ethics experts say that behested payments, while not the same as a gift or campaign contribution, still convey some political influence. Their use is increasing, in part, because there are no limits on such payments.
Throughout his tenure, Gov. Jerry Brown has been scrutinized repeatedly for soliciting millions of dollars in contributions to the Oakland Military Institute and the Oakland School for the Arts. Brown founded the two charter schools as mayor of Oakland and considers them part of his political legacy. But, Brown’s behested payments are peanuts compared with one San Diego lawmaker.
Republican Assemblyman Brian Maienschein has reported $9.6 million in behested payments so far this year – a figure that blows all other state politicians out of the water. To put that number into perspective, state constitutional officers, state senators, Assembly members and members of the PUC reported $8.8 million in combined behested payments for all of last year.
Maienschein’s behested payments were primarily support for green energy grants and special tax breaks from state agencies. The largest beneficiary, Poway-based Transportation Power Inc., received $6 million in alternative energy and renewable fuel grants to conduct heavy-duty truck and tractor demonstration projects, according to grant application documents filed with the California Energy Commission.
“I am proud to support local companies bringing jobs, economic growth and investment to the 77th Assembly District as well as the entire San Diego region,” Maienschein said of his record-setting behested payments. “I strive to be effective for them, and the more state funding I can help bring to San Diego, rather than Los Angeles, San Francisco or other cities in the state, the better the quality of life will be for the residents of my district, and the rest of San Diego.”
In January – at Maienschein’s behest – seven San Diego-area businesses received $2.87 million in tax breaks under the California Competes Tax Credit program. Managed by the governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development (called GO-Biz), the income tax credit goes to new or existing California businesses that promise to create jobs in the state.
“The California Competes tax credit continues to demonstrate that it is one of the most effective tools for encouraging companies to expand and add jobs in California,” Michael E. Rossi, the chair of the tax credit committee, said in a press release announcing this year’s recipients.
You’re not likely to hear any complaints from participating businesses.
Recipients of the special corporate tax break are contractually bound “to cooperate in good faith with GO-Biz, if requested in connection with any publicity, outreach or press release related to the credit.”