California lawmakers will soon end their summer recess and return to Sacramento for the most important final month of the legislative year. August is when the Legislature determines the fate of hundreds of bills that have passed through the Capitol all year, making decisions that could affect millions of Californians as well as many businesses regulated by the State. This is the month when lobbyists work the hardest to sway lawmakers — and that makes it a prime time for sordid politics.
It’s hard to see the upcoming “Technology Policy Summit” as anything other than that. Shortly after business resumed in Sacramento on August 1, some tech lobbyists were invited by a powerful congressman to spend two days chatting with lawmakers at a Napa Valley wine resort. Of course, there is a price.
For a $35,000 donation to a foundation affiliated with the Legislature’s “tech caucus” — a bipartisan group led by Democratic Assemblyman Evan Low from Silicon Valley — companies can choose a topic they wish to brief legislators and designate an executive or lobbyist to moderate the discussion. . For $20,000, a donor can speak on a panel, according to a copy of the invitation I got. Cheap tickets cost $10,000 just to attend the two-day event. (Although the invitation does not specify who donors should pay, I have confirmed that the event is sponsored by the Foundation for California’s Technology and Innovation Economy, which is the nonprofit organization affiliated with the technology caucus and includes Low’s chief of staff on his board.)
All packages include plenty of opportunities to rub shoulders with legislators over a meal at the luxurious Carneros Resort and Spa, nestled in the hills above the bucolic vineyards of Napa.
It’s a fabulous time for tech executives to have one-on-one access to California lawmakers (perhaps around a nice cabernet). For months, the tech industry has tried to kill legislation to regulate social media and cryptocurrency. Lawmakers will vote later in August to determine whether those bills pass this year.
Event organizers wouldn’t tell me which companies pay to send their lobbyists to Napa, or which lawmakers will be there. Because the money is going to a nonprofit, not a politician’s campaign account, there’s no limit to how much donors can give — and no requirement that the nonprofit profit only brings who gives. These loose rules have made charities an attractive way for politicians to raise money outside the confines of California’s strict campaign finance laws. Politicians essentially receive a slush fund, while their donors get a tax break.
Non-profit organizations like the one affiliated with the tech caucus have become increasingly common. A survey I did for CalMatters in 2020 found at least a dozen nonprofits run by California legislators or caucuses — about four times as many as there were a decade earlier. Although they typically support charities, such as scholarships and community events, some of these groups seem to exist primarily to organize events that sell lobbyists access to legislators through jaunts into chic hotels and overseas travel. The tech caucus foundation spent about 60% of its revenue in 2019 on hosting conferences and about 13% on supporting charities, according to its latest report. public tax return.
The foundation’s attorney, Stephen Kaufman, didn’t answer most of my questions, but sent an email saying that the money he raises “supports teachers by providing scholarships to they learn coding which they can then pick up and teach in their classrooms.”
California law requires elected officials to disclose publicly when asking someone to donate $5,000 or more to a nonprofit. But when I investigated the lawmakers’ nonprofits, I discovered that Low had stopped reporting which companies were donating to the tech caucus foundation. This meant the public didn’t know who was spending money to influence state technology policy, pioneering technological advancements that radically changed people’s lives. As a world leader in tech innovation, California should also be aggressive in regulating the industry in a way that respects the 1st Amendment while limiting harm from platforms that facilitate incitement to violence and dissemination of false information.
After reporting on the founding of the tech caucus, California’s political ethics regulator opened a investigation into Low’s fundraising practices. He is expected to determine whether he violated the law which requires the disclosure of charitable donations given at the request of a politician. But two and a half years later, the investigation remains open. It’s infuriating.
As the investigation progresses at a glacial pace, Low continues to raise funds and attempt to build power. Last year, he reported a handful of donations to the tech caucus foundation made at his request by Facebook, Airbnb, Waymo (a driverless car company) and SunPower, a solar energy company. He also pointed to donations from Uber, Tesla, Amazon and other companies to a nonprofit affiliated with the Legislative LGBTQ caucus that Low leads.
Late last year, Low tried to become Speaker of the Assembly. When that didn’t work, he pivoted and helped fellow Assemblyman Robert Rivas (D-Hollister) get the votes to become the next speaker. This puts him in a powerful position whenever Rivas takes over.
Meanwhile, Big Tech is trying to kill or weaken bills to make safer social networks for children, stem the online spreading false information about vaccines and consumer protection in cryptocurrency market. The industry has already succeeded in persuading legislators to water down a bill removing the ability for parents to sue social media companies for harming children who become addicted to their platforms. Instead, under the latest changes, only prosecutors can sue companies. Tech lobbyists are working to neutralize another bill that would require online services used by children to be designed in an “age-appropriate” way – like banning location tracking and defaulting social media accounts to the most private settings.
I’d like to know if lawmakers elected to serve the public will be discussing these issues with tech lobbyists at wine tastings and spa treatments next month. Is not it?