The Daily News of Los Angeles
SACRAMENTO – Even as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger takes a well- publicized trade mission to Japan, more than a dozen legislators are traveling to Italy, Australia, Israel and South Africa.
While legislators say such trips are valuable in learning about programs and policies in other countries, critics question whether lawmakers might be unduly influenced by special-interest groups that often pay for their junkets.
“Politicians get weak around special interests, especially when they’re giving them the time of their life,” said Doug Heller, executive director of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights in Santa Monica.
“These trips don’t happen so there can be some kind of honest education about issues. These trips are just the cutting edge of buying off politicians and bureaucrats.”
The trips include a planned visit to Israel by seven lawmakers to study homeland security, organized and funded by the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez and two Assembly members are looking at power plants and infrastructure in Italy, courtesy of the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy.
Two of the trips, to Australia/New Zealand and to South Africa, are being paid for by the legislators themselves – through their political committees funded by campaign donors.
Schwarzenegger is leading a 57-member delegation of business leaders and government officials on a trip to Japan to promote California trade and tourism. The trip is being funded through a combination of nonprofit and corporate sources, as well as some public funds, although delegation members are paying their own way.
Assemblyman Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield, the Republican minority leader, is among those who will be traveling to Israel.
“I’m going for educational purposes,” he said. “You look at the timing of when we’re going and what’s happening in the world today – from that perspective I think the education we’re going to get is tremendous.”
The Jewish Federation is paying about $3,000 for travel and lodging costs for each legislator. The scheduled events include meetings with experts in homeland security and bioterrorism as well as a smaller trade and tourism component.
“I think we’re doing the public a service,” said Jessica Toledano, director of government relations for the federation.
“I don’t think many groups have the expertise that the Jewish community has had with security issues, and with dealing with terrorism the way the United States and California have to, post-9-11. So I really see us as educating them about a very important issue for this state and this country.”
Three legislators are currently on the CFEE-funded Italy trip – Nunez, Assemblyman Lloyd Levine, D-Van Nuys and Assemblywoman Carol Liu, D-Pasadena.
The CFEE, which is paying for the trip, has representatives of industry and environmental groups on its board, although critics say it generally tilts in favor of industry-friendly policies.
Gabriel Sanchez, a spokesman for Nunez, said the trip involves viewing power plants, alternate energy projects, public-private partnerships for transportation projects and other infrastructure.
“They’re exploring the implementation of alternate energy and its development and its implementation, and looking at the increased role of public-private partnerships for transportation projects,” Sanchez said.
Nunez has been a key player in the energy issue this year, proposing a major reform package that was vetoed by the governor.
Senate officials said two of the members are visiting South Africa because California has sister-state relationships with Capetown and New South Wales, with officials from those regions and California visiting each other on a regular, rotating basis.
An aide to Assemblyman Tim Leslie, R-Roseville, who is on the trip, said it provides a valuable service to the legislator.
“A ‘junket’ is something the taxpayers pick up and they go and have a really good time in Hong Kong and get cheap suits,” said Brian O’Neel.
“This isn’t a junket because he’s paying for it. It’s costing the taxpayers not a dime. If he goes back and learns something about how to make the Legislature work better or builds relationships that benefit California, all the better for the California taxpayer.”
ON THE GOM
Legislators are taking at least four trips abroad this month. They include:
–Italy: Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, D-Los Angeles, Assembly members Lloyd Levine, D-Van Nuys, and Carol Liu, D-Pasadena, are taking a five-day trip, funded and organized by the California Foundation for the Environment and the Economy.
The purpose is to view power plants, alternative energy sites, transportation projects and other infrastructure.
–Israel: Assembly members Rick Keene, R-Chico; Doug La Malfa, R-Redding; Lloyd Levine; Kevin McCarthy, R-Bakersfield; Cindy Montanez, D-Mission Hills; and Sens. Jim Brulte, R-Rancho Cucamonga; and Sam Aanestad, R-Nevada City.
Itinerary and dates withheld by request due to security concerns.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles is paying the $3,000- per-person cost, although Brulte is paying his way through his political accounts.
–South Africa: Nov. 11-25. Sen. Liz Figueroa, D-Fremont, and Assemblyman Tim Leslie, R-Roseville. Funded by the legislators from political accounts.
Itinerary includes meetings with U.S. diplomats, South African government officials, South African companies that do business in California, and the group Doctors Without Borders to discuss its HIV/AIDS treatment projects.
Also includes visits to South African schools and universities; a tour of Robben Island prison, where Nelson Mandela was held; a wine-tasting; and a tour of a wine estate. They have three free days with no official activities.
–Australia/New Zealand: Nov. 8-23. Sens. Dick Ackerman, R-Tustin; Sheila Kuehl, D-Los Angeles; Bob Margett, R-Diamond Bar, and Assemblyman/Sen.-elect Dave Cox, R-Sacramento.
Itinerary starts in Sydney with meetings with government officials, U.S. diplomats and business leaders. Also includes a cruise of Sydney’s harbor, a VIP tour of the Sydney Opera House and a performance of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. Later they will visit a coal mine and tour local wineries.
They later fly to Wellington, New Zealand, to meet with government officials and the U.S. ambassador and observe Parliament. Then they fly to Rotorua and Auckland, visiting the Maori Arts and Crafts Institute, seeing an automatic milking operation and then going to Muriwai Beach. They will also meet with business leaders and more government officials.
Contact the author Harrison Sheppard at: (916) 446-6723 or [email protected]