By The Editorial Board, THE DESERT SUN
January 10, 2019
Picture this: As the deadly Camp Fire was ravaging Butte County and leveling the town of Paradise, some California legislators were meeting in Hawaii with officials from various industries, including utility company executives who hope Sacramento shields them from billions in potential liability from increasingly costly wildfires.
Doesn’t that just about set your hair on fire?
Now ponder this: Though not all events that bring together lawmakers and corporate and other special interests have the spectacularly bad timing and optics as last fall’s $8,000-per-person California Independent Voter Project retreat in Maui, all of them are perfectly legal.
We’ll go ahead and say it: This stinks.
Of course, corporate interests and others who hope to make their case to state government have the right to their say. We all do.
That’s the nature of our system. Junkets like these, however, distort the process.
A New York Times article earlier this month on the retreat suggests that anyone can attend the annual CIVP event — for a price.
“What would be wrong with elected officials and business discussing issues?” Voter Project chief Dan Howle told the Times, also pointing out that the conference rules prohibit lobbying or discussion of specific legislation. “If the public wants to go, the public can pay a fee.”
Got that, John Q. Public? Just send along your own fat check for a ticket — oh, and make sure you get the OK from the boss for the time off — and you’ll surely score a good seat. Bring your “fat pants” to make sure you enjoy the poolside buffet and open bar.
One other thing: To put more punch into your personal pitch “on the issues,” John, bring along that checkbook that’ll prove you can compete with the millions some of your dinner partners are going to spend on lobbying and campaign donations down the road to further bend the ear of “your representative.”
Folks, this sick joke is on you.
Assembling “captive” audiences of influential lawmakers in a far-off Polynesian paradise or some “Where Eagles Dare” mountain ski lodge and regaling them with one-sided explorations of issues they’ll be acting on is neither democratic nor necessary. These tilt the playing field far beyond anything resembling fair.
The people’s business should be done where the people can take part. These types of junkets have too much potential to simply be the jet-set version of the sinister “smoke-filled room” where decisions are made. They should be relegated to the past.
The supremely cynical pragmatist might suggest lawmakers “need” this type of quality time with such power players so they can be “educated” on how to fix hot messes like Pacific Gas & Electric. PG&E, which seemed to be in the clear from potential billions in liability from then-record 2017 wildfires, is now teetering on bankruptcy thanks to the now-record Camp Fire, which left 86 dead and additional billions in damage.
Our society can’t surrender to that level of cynicism.
For now, we’ll reserve judgment on potential legislative solutions – which currently range from extending the recently enacted 2017 “lifeline” to also cover 2018 fires to a potential breakup of PG&E. Lawmakers definitely have their work cut out for them, but they need to get it done without undue influence from Mai Tais and kalua pork.
(For the record, PG&E decided to not send its executives to CIVP this year, but did not request refund of its sponsorship funds. The other two investor-owned utilities, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric, did have executives in Maui.)
The nonprofit progressive advocacy group Consumer Watchdog on Wednesday, in response to the New York Times piece, called on the Legislature to require lawmakers to disclose – in real time on public websites – specific information about the educational “seminars” and trips they attend when they accept an invitation and information about the lobbyists attending as well.
“Had this been a requirement for the Wailea trip in November many legislators would likely have reconsidered their attendance,” Consumer Watchdog President Jamie Court wrote in a letter to Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon and Senate President Pro Tempore Toni Atkins.
Democrats who hold supermajorities in both bodies of the Legislature could make this happen faster than you could say “red eye to Kahului” if they saw it as a priority. Barring an actual ban on such junkets, this tougher disclosure policy could be a good start at reform. As similar legislation that sought to rein in junket travel has gone down in flames in the past, however, we won’t hold our breath.
We’ll be watching to see how our own lawmakers handle such travel “opportunities.” Voters across the Golden State should keep a sharp eye on their own representatives and remember to take it into account at election time.