Just weeks after the Legislature struggled to reconcile budget shortages, nine state officials--including four legislators--have made a taxpayer-subsidized trip to South Africa for six days of activities celebrating the opening of California's newest foreign trade office.
The delegation from the Legislature, which includes two other legislators who say they are paying their own way, was authorized by Doris Allen in the final days of her short tenure as Assembly Speaker, according to documents and interviews.
The Cypress Republican has since tried to distance herself from the decision, saying she approved the trip only because it was her understanding that all the legislators would finance their travel with their own funds, possibly from campaign accounts.
"That many of them shouldn't be traveling on taxpayer dollars," Allen said, adding that she might ask the new Speaker, Brian Setencich (R-Fresno), to revoke the approval.
When advised that state records show Allen's signature on some of the documents seeking reimbursement from the state controller's office for costs of the trip, the former Speaker said she did not recall signing them. "I think I need to do some checking to see how my signature got on there," she said.
Allen authorized the overseas travel for members of the Assembly Select Committee on California-Africa Affairs, including Brett Granlund (R-Yucaipa), Marguerite Archie-Hudson (D-Los Angeles), Kevin Murray (D-Los Angeles), Sal Cannella (D-Ceres) and Willard Murray (D-Paramount).
Committee Chairwoman Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) is also attending, but aides say she is going at her own expense. After being contacted by The Times, aides to Granlund said the freshman legislator had received an advance from the state for lodging but did not plan to cash the check. An aide said Granlund had paid his own air fare.
Julie Meier Wright, secretary of the California Trade and Commerce Agency, and four other top Wilson Administration officials are also making the trip in an effort to drum up trade for California with the emerging democracies of sub-Saharan Africa.
Some critics questioned the wisdom of state officials taking a foreign excursion--estimated to cost at least $30,000--at a time when state and local government have faced such a critical shortage of funds that the state has had to cut welfare payments and help bail out Orange and Los Angeles counties.
"It's very, very poor judgment," said Assemblyman Bernie Richter (R-Chico).
Richter, a persistent critic of government perks, said the actual cost of the trip is not as significant as the symbolism. For officials to travel overseas at a time when the government is cutting programs such as aid to the handicapped, blind and disabled is "extremely unfortunate," he said.
Richter said there may be more justification for trade and commerce officials to take the trip at state expense than for legislators, but he still thought it unwise. "If I were the chief guy," he said, referring to the governor, "I wouldn't want money being spent that way."
Assembly Rules Committee Chairman Fred Aguiar (R-Chino) said legislators, as a matter of principle, should avoid state-paid foreign travel. "I just don't think the taxpayers should be financing these trips," he said. "I don't see anything wrong with the trip as long as [legislators] finance the trip themselves."
Reached in Capetown, South Africa, Wright and some of the legislators defended the use of tax money for the trade mission, saying the cost was a small investment for the millions of dollars California could ultimately reap in trade agreements.
They said California needed to send a large delegation to impress South African business and government leaders who are being courted by other prospective economic partners who are scrambling to invest in the emerging nation.
"South Africa is a brand-new market and I think [this trip] is extremely worthwhile and I'm not at all surprised or dismayed that some of our more conservative members [in the Legislature] might question it," Willard Murray said.
"It's easy to sit back in Los Angeles and criticize," Cannella said, but the critics are ignoring the enormous potential for exporting California goods, equipment and expertise to Africa.
Wright said the trip has been "particularly effective because we are establishing a permanent presence here." Wright was also in South Africa to preside over the opening of a large American trade show.
Another delegation member, Chris Kahn, assistant secretary for legislative affairs for Wright's agency, said the presence of elected officials demonstrates to South Africans the depth of California's interest in improved trade relations.
"It was a working delegation that was there for a single purpose--to give California companies an opportunity to invest in an unbelievable emerging market," he said.
State-financed foreign trips by large delegations of legislators are a rarity, especially in recent years as widespread criticism of government junkets has made them a political liability. Instead, legislators have increasingly taken trips underwritten by private foundations and foreign governments.
In this latest trip, Kahn said, business interests are picking up some of the tab for meals and ground transportation.
The opening of a California trade office--the eighth such office--not only demonstrates California's desire for more African trade, but it also provides a tangible symbol of a turnaround in state policy toward South Africa.
In 1986, the Legislature joined the international campaign to pressure South Africa to end apartheid by voting to ban investments by state trust funds in companies that did business in the nation. With the creation of a non-racial state, Gov. Pete Wilson last year signed legislation lifting the ban.