Governor Gavin Newsom spent the week of July 4 vacationing with his family in Montana, where his wife’s parents own a ranch. This should be quite a commonplace fact.
But he generated new last the week because Montana is on the long list of states to which California has banned state government-funded travel in protest of state anti-LGBTQ laws. Of course, Newsom was on personal vacation, not government business, so the trip was not paid for by the state. But that hasn’t stopped critics from calling Newsom a hypocrite, as he usually travels with a security guard whose expenses are paid for with public funds.
It’s a stupid attack, but the Democrats have themselves to blame. The Democratic-controlled legislature exposed California leaders to such unnecessary trappings by pass the well-intentioned but senseless law in 2016 that bans state-funded travel to states that have laws that discriminate against people because of their gender identity or sexual orientation. It was signed by the governor at the time. Jerry Brown.
Lawmakers argued at the time that the boycott would send a strong message “that we do not tolerate discrimination in our state and beyond our borders.” But it didn’t do that at all. Instead, it created a series of bureaucratic workarounds in state government and thwarted some academic research — with no demonstrable economic impact on offending states. And that clearly doesn’t discourage red states from passing discriminatory laws, since the list of banned states has grown from four when the boycott began to 22 today.
One of the reasons California’s ban is ineffective is that it’s riddled with loopholes. State-funded travel is permitted in prohibited states to protect health or safety, so there is no ban on Newsom traveling with his California Highway Patrol detail. Travel is permitted if state officials need to enforce California law, conduct an audit, engage in litigation, or comply with federal government requests. Vocational training and meetings required to obtain a grant are permitted. In other words, it is allowed in many situations that government employees encounter on a regular basis.
The ban does not apply to how California politicians spend their campaign funds, another loophole that blunts its economic impact and makes Democrats look like hypocrites. Several Democratic lawmakers who voted for the bill in 2016 have used campaign money in subsequent years to travel to conferences in boycotted states, including Texas, Alabama and Tennessee. Another used campaign money to trip to Kentucky to learn more about that state’s bail system, even though it is also on the list of prohibited states. And although Newsom hasn’t been to Florida – another banned state – he recently pumped $100,000 into its economy by running ads there, pushing Republican Governor Ron DeSantis. These examples do not violate the law, but they do show how meaningless it is in achieving what boycotts are meant to do – make offensive entities feel a financial pinch.
Nor has the travel ban stopped the economic activity generated by college sports. Athletes from California’s public universities still compete in games across the country, they just use private dollars instead of taxpayers’ money to fund trips to banned states.
Meanwhile, the ban prevented many scholars at California’s public universities from participating in legitimate academic activities. It was so problematic that the Association of American Historians. wrote a letter to California lawmakers last year calling for a change in the law. Ironically, the historians point out in their letter that the law intended to promote LGBTQ rights actually limited the ability of scholars “to conduct research, give presentations, or participate in conferences and workshops that would also support social change. about LGBTQ or other actions. problems in some of the very places where this work is most needed.
In one case, a San Francisco state history professor was initially prevented from traveling to North Carolina to examine archival materials in that state’s libraries, research he was pursuing for a project on the historical context of this state’s anti-transgender restroom law. Eventually he was able to secure an exemption by showing that the trip would be paid for by a private endowment, not public funds.
“It solved the immediate problem for me, but not the larger problem for other researchers,” said Professor Marc Stein. wrote in a blog post last year. “Virtually every other member of the University of California and California State University systems … effectively lost public research funding in the states covered by the boycott.”
As the 50 states become increasingly politically divided, California has an important role to play in demonstrating the benefits of inclusive and progressive policies. California’s commitment to equal rights for LGBTQ people and provide access to abortion and contraception are especially vital now, as a right-wing Supreme Court dismantles hard-won American freedom. Welcoming people from other states who seek prohibited health care where they live is a substantial and meaningful way for California to demonstrate its values.
But the travel ban is a goofy and unworkable attempt to show the nation what we stand for without really showing much. It places symbolism above pragmatism, undermining well-founded criticisms of discriminatory laws. Supporters still believe it is an important tool in a series of responses to unjust attacks on LGBTQ people in red states. California Democrats will therefore find it hard to admit that this policy has been ineffective and would likely encounter resistance if they introduce legislation to repeal it. But that’s what they should do. Not because the governor vacationed in Montana, but because principles that don’t add up to substance aren’t really principles.