Three years after the California Legislature banned taxpayer-financed travel to states it saw as discriminating against LGBTQ people, lawmakers and university athletic teams are still visiting the boycotted states and finding other ways to pay for their trips.
Signed in 2016 by then-Gov. Jerry Brown, California’s law bars state-funded travel to 10 states and says the purpose of the restrictions is to “avoid supporting or financing discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.”
But California elected officials have tapped campaign contributions to continue visiting the targeted states, while state university sports teams and students participating in academic competitions have appealed for private donations to fund their travel.
The law has been criticized by officials from the states affected — Alabama, Kansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee and Texas — who say it represents meddling in their affairs by left-leaning California. But supporters say it has had an effect, putting pressure on states that have adopted discriminatory laws, even if some California officials are using political funds to continue traveling to the targeted states.
“Ultimately this is about making sure that our taxpayer dollars aren’t going to those states, and I think in that way the law has been successful,” said Samuel Garrett-Pate, a spokesman for Equality California, an LGBTQ rights group.
The travel restrictions were pushed by Democratic lawmakers but opposed by Republicans, who say it has proved to be an empty gesture.
Assembly Republican leader Marie Waldron of Escondido cited as one example Gov. Gavin Newsom’s April fact-finding trip to El Salvador to determine the reasons so many migrants from that country have fled to the United States.
“The travel ban was virtue-signaling at its worst,” Waldron said. “El Salvador doesn’t allow same-sex couples to marry or adopt children and discrimination is rampant. Where was the outrage from legislative Democrats when Gov. Newsom traveled there?”
Some California officials have cut back on their travel to the states targeted by the law. Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon (D-Lakewood) and state Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) are among the many lawmakers who are opting not to attend the annual summit of the National Conference of State Legislators, scheduled to begin this week in Nashville, Tenn.
“If any legislators or staff were to attend, they would be traveling to Tennessee with private funds,” said Pablo Espinoza, a spokesman for Rendon.
Records show Mitchell spent $1,950 of her campaign funds during the last two years on trips to Montgomery, Ala. and Nashville to attend conferences by the National Organization of Black Elected Legislative Women, or NOBEL Women, which she helped found as a staff member and for which she serves on the board of directors.
“I respect and understand the travel ban and therefore don’t use public resources,” said Mitchell, who voted for the law in 2016.
There is some value, she said, in having state lawmakers talk to counterparts in boycotted states to educate them about California’s ideas on issues including LGBTQ rights and criminal justice reform.
“It’s important for me to go because I am the only black woman who serves in the California state Senate, and NOBEL is an organization of black female state legislators from across the country,” Mitchell said. “It is for me and my own sense of connection to other women who look like me, who do my work.”
Texas was put on the travel-ban list for a law allowing foster care agencies to deny adoptions and services to children and parents based on “sincerely held religious beliefs.”
A representative for California Secretary of State Alex Padilla defended Padilla’s decision to use campaign funds to travel to San Antonio in 2017, saying it was “to advocate for voting rights in a state that is ground zero for voter suppression.”
A similar justification was provided for state Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara, when as a state senator he traveled to Dallas in 2017 to attend the annual conference of the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
“With LGBT and immigrant rights under assault across the country, I thought it was important to join other Latino leaders and show California’s example,” Lara said at the time.
Like Lara and Mitchell, Assemblywoman Autumn Burke (D-Marina del Rey) voted for California’s travel ban and later reported spending campaign funds for travel involving a Technet conference in Austin, Texas last November. She did not respond to a request for comment.
Two employees of the state auditor’s office attended an annual conference in Mississippi last year, but the trip was paid for by the National Assn. of State Auditors so the pair could present information about an award-winning audit they conducted, a representative said.
State Auditor Elaine Howle is past president of the group and would normally have attended its annual meeting, but did not consider traveling to the event because of the state law, spokeswoman Margarita Fernández said.
Joel Anderson was a Republican state senator when he traveled in 2017 to Tennessee to attend legislative meetings sponsored by the American Legislative Exchange Council. The group paid all of his expenses because he is a board member, he said.
“My colleagues had an opportunity to grandstand but now that the television cameras are off it was unenforced,” Anderson said of the travel-ban law he voted against. “It was the dumbest thing I’ve heard of in my entire life.”
The law also prohibits using public resources to send academics and sports teams from California universities to the 10 states, but travel has continued as teams turn to private financing, including donations from boosters and corporate sponsors, to keep their schedules.
When the Cal State Long Beach men’s basketball team was invited in November to play in a tournament in Starkville, Miss., it asked the company that staged the tournament to cover its travel and hotel costs. Track stars were able to participate in the NCAA Track and Field National Championships this year because of private funds raised from supporters, said Andy Fee, the university’s athletic director.
“It’s extra work,” Fee said. “We’ve been lucky that we do have folks who understand the need to fundraise private dollars.”
Fee said he understands why California has the travel restrictions and that he is concerned about discriminatory policies that led to states being put on the no-go list.
UC officials support and comply with the state law, said spokeswoman Sarah McBride. “However, UC has faced challenges implementing this law in areas such as academic research and teaching, student recruitment and athletics,” she said. In one case, students at Cal State Fullerton had to crowdsource funding to attend a debate competition.
The policy has drawn the ire of government leaders in the boycotted states.
“California’s attempt to influence public policy in our state is akin to Tennessee expressing its disapproval of California’s exorbitant taxes, spiraling budget deficits, runaway social welfare programs, and rampant illegal immigration,” said a resolution approved by the Tennessee Legislature in 2017.
Tennessee’s Republican Gov. Bill Lee, who has seen California businesses including Mitsubishi decide to move operations to his state, believes the Golden State’s travel policy is a distraction.
“Gov. Lee thinks it’s better to focus less on divisive politics and more on job creation,” said Chris Walker, a spokesman for the governor. “If leaders in other states adopted a similar perspective, perhaps companies wouldn’t be leaving those states.”
California leads the nation in new business startups, said Lenny Mendonca, Newsom’s chief economic and business advisor and director of the Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development.
“This is a state that values inclusion, both in our society and in the workplace and we encourage all businesses that share that belief to join us,” Mendonca said. “They will be in good company.”
Despite the criticism of the law and how it has been followed, Garrett-Pate of Equality California said it has had an effect on the national dialogue on LGBTQ issues.
“I do think it is now part of the conversation when states are considering discriminatory policies like the ones we have seen in the states to which travel is banned in California,” Garrett-Pate said. “We want them to think twice before they do this.”