Even as Gov. Pete Wilson and the Legislature grapple with resolving the state’s unprecedented budget shortfall, the Senate Rules Committee on Wednesday decided to approve a taxpayer-financed visit to Manila and Hong Kong for six senators.
Demonstrating that old habits die hard at the state Capitol even in tough fiscal times, the committee authorized spending an estimated $21,000 to pay for air fare and hotel lodging for the senators to take the journey from March 19 to 29.
The trip also occurs against a backdrop in which about 800 legislative employees were given financial inducements to leave the payroll early so lawmakers could comply with voter-approved Proposition 140. The ballot measure ordered substantial reductions in spending by the Senate and Assembly.
Since then, the Senate Rules Committee has shifted gears and granted generous salary increases to certain remaining employees. The raises were made possible by using money left over after the cost-cutting goals were met.
The Rules Committee decision to proceed with the overseas trip came in the wake of demands by Wilson and some Republican members of the Senate for the Legislature to put aside business as usual and bear down harder and faster to resolve the state’s fiscal crisis.
Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles), who will lead the delegation to the Philippines and Hong Kong, defended the trip as absolutely necessary so senators will better understand the diversity of problems that immigrants face in rapidly changing California.
“In case anybody wants to suggest that this is going to be seven days on the beach, it is not,” Roberti testily told reporters. He noted that the politically volatile Philippines are listed on a State Department alert.
A Senate spokesman said each of the six lawmakers would receive $2,300 for business class air fare and $1,200 for lodging. The government of the Phillipines will pay for local travel and official meals. Hong Kong will pay none of the legislators’ expenses for their two days in the British colony, he said.
Under an ethics reform ballot measure approved in June, legislators are prohibited from accepting junkets financed by private sources, such as lobbies. However, travel financed by governments is exempt.
Signed up for the tour are Roberti and Sens. Art Torres (D-Los Angeles), Cecil Green (D-Norwalk), Dan McCorquodale (D-San Jose), Alfred Alquist (D-San Jose) and Newton R. Russell (R-Glendale).
Defending the excursion, part of which will occur during the Legislature’s spring vacation, Roberti said that California has become a “Third World state” and that immigrants from the Pacific Rim and Latin America arrive with real problems.
He insisted that state legislators must learn more about immigrant health problems and learn why educated professionals such as physicians from outside the state cannot practice in California. By law and administrative regulation, California has especially high standards that must be met before a license is granted, for example, to practice medicine or law.
Roberti argued that an understanding of what immigrants may face when they arrive in California “only can be learned by having some kind of interplay with those nations, with their governmental, economic, health and education leaders.”