Inside California lawmakers’ paid trips to Maui

Credit to : The Sacramento Bee

The California Independent Voter Project’s annual conference has once again arrived at this $360-a-night hotel on Maui’s southwest shore, bringing together 21 lawmakers and dozens of corporate sponsors for five days of policy discussions and schmoozing.

Ditching suits and ties for shorts and polos, attendees rotate through morning panels covering subjects such as drug buyback programs and the digital divide in poor households. Hawaiian shirts are in disappointingly short supply. During open afternoons, they are free to relax and explore the island, often with spouses and children who have tagged along for the week.

This type of travel is nothing new for California legislators, who have been venturing overseas for decades on the dime of business groups, labor unions, foreign governments and their campaign donors. Just this year, the state Senate led study trips to Japan, Mexico and Australia, while more junkets went unannounced.

Yet the Independent Voter Project conference, with its luxurious Hawaiian setting, has become something of a lightning rod for criticisms about the cozy relationship between lawmakers and special interests.

“Nobody thinks you’re going to Maui to learn things,” said Jack Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College. “If the purpose of the trip were to educate lawmakers about the problems of California, they would go to Fresno.”

The Independent Voter Project provides legislators an average of nearly $2,500 in airfare, hotel rooms and food to attend the conference. Last year, it spent $55,503 to bring 20 members to Maui, according to financial disclosure statements filed with the Fair Political Practices Commission. A few pay their own way or use campaign funds for the trip, and they must cover the cost of taking their families.

Meanwhile, sponsors pay $7,500 to participate, gaining intimate access to a full sixth of the Legislature that will soon be voting on bills affecting their industries.

Some groups spend more. The California Correctional Peace Officers Association, the California Manufacturers and Technology Association, the Western States Petroleum Association, FedEx and AT&T were among those who collectively paid $7,190 last year to wine and dine lawmakers at private dinners and receptions.

Attendees, who fill 125 rooms at the Fairmont, say the conference provides an opportunity to get away from the Capitol bubble and develop connections beyond the transactional nature of day-to-day policymaking. The relaxed atmosphere, they say, also allows them to consider issues more broadly than the specific changes proposed in bills.

The lobby bar, bridging the airy atrium foyer to a central courtyard with three pools and a rolling view down to the ocean, becomes a favorite gathering spot. On any given evening, lawmakers and corporate representatives chat late into the evening, long after the in-house musician has packed in his acoustic guitar covers of “The Girl From Ipanema” and Lionel Richie’s “Hello.”

“It opens the door for relationships,” said Assemblyman Frank Bigelow, R-O’Neals, who said he also planned to spend time with a daughter who lives in Hawaii. “If that makes us better legislators, then I don’t see the problem.”

Founded in 2006, the Independent Voter Project is a nonprofit that promotes a less polarized, more centrist approach to governing by empowering nonpartisan voters.

Backed by corporate donors such as the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly and the Pacific Gas & Electric Co., as well as wealthy individuals like businessman Charles Munger, IVP runs a news site and was behind the 2010 ballot initiative that gave California its top-two primary system.

The conference began seven years ago as a fundraiser for the then-relatively new group, board chairman Dan Howle said. A veteran of similar Maui confabs that have dotted the California political calendar for decades, he chose the beachside setting to draw in participants: “It’s my hook.”

But Howle said his goal is ultimately to help fix a “completely horrible” legislative process, where discussions are reduced to two-minute sound bites from opposing sides at a committee hearing and there is little opportunity for learning.

Each year, he invites a bipartisan list of members, chosen for him by one Democrat and one Republican lawmaker, to participate in a series of interactive 90-minute sessions moderated by groups like the California Cable and Telecommunications Association, the California Business Roundtable and the Civil Justice Association of California.

Though the lineup is heavy on business interests – Howle said he is trying to convince SEIU to come next year – he hopes disagreement among members on the information presented will get them talking and then collaborating back at the Capitol.

“When I retire in a few years, I want to have had a small part in making the Legislature better,” Howle said.

The Independent Voter Project has made a huge investment in that goal: Over the past five years, it spent more than $184,000 bringing 75 lawmakers to the conference, according to financial disclosure forms. Many of them are repeat visitors.

Sen. Tom Berryhill, R-Twain Harte, has attended every conference since 2010. Not including this year, he accepted $13,662 in travel expenses from IVP along the way, as well as $2,375 worth of gift meals and golf fees from groups like the prison guards union, PG&E and Prime Healthcare Services.

During that same time, Wright, Sen. Isadore Hall, D-Compton, former Sen. Steve Knight, R-Lancaster, and former Assemblyman V. Manuel Perez, D-Coachella, all made four appearances. Perez is now a member of IVP’s board of directors.

Another 14 lawmakers took multiple trips to Maui, including former Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, Assembly Republican Leader Kristin Olsen, and the Calderon brothers, Ron and Charles.

Assemblywoman Cheryl Brown, D-San Bernardino, said her focus was on jobs, and meeting people who might be able to bring resources back to her “very poor district.”

Assemblyman Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove, declined to discuss his participation as he headed off to his room for the night.

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