At least 20 lawmakers have signed up to spend three days in Maui attending a conference sponsored by the state prison guards union just one week after they are expected to convene in special session to deal with budget and workers' compensation issues.
The California Correctional Peace Officers Assn. will pick up the tab for meals, said union consultant Don Novey, but lawmakers are expected to pay for their own travel and rooms at the Sheraton in Lahaina. Most lawmakers use campaign funds to pay for such travel.
Last year, at least a dozen legislators attended the same conference in Maui, three days before the opening of a special session to close a multibillion-dollar budget gap.
Although the trip is not being fully paid for by the correctional officers union, one of the biggest donors to state politicians, Paul Ryan, political reform project director for the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, said the gathering troubles him.
"This is a prime example of some of the state's largest campaign contributors having more access to lawmakers than the general public," Ryan said.
The families of incarcerated felons, he said, "would be hard-pressed to get 10 minutes" with lawmakers to discuss the prison system.
Bob Stern, president of the nonpartisan research center, called the trip "perfectly legal," because the money that politicians raise to win elections can be spent on a variety of legislative or governmental purposes. But it would be "inappropriate" for lawmakers to take their families, he said. The lawmakers' ability to pay for the trip with campaign funds shows how safely the Legislature has drawn districts to protect incumbents from challengers, Stern said.
"Since legislators have very little competition they can use campaign funds for expensive trips such as this and not have to worry about using the funds for their campaigns," he said.
Novey refused to say which lawmakers had signed up to attend the Nov. 24-26 conference.
Last year, most of the Legislature's top leaders attended the conference. But several attendees from last year -- Senate Republican Leader Jim Brulte (R-Rancho Cucamonga), Assembly Republican Leader Dave Cox (R-Fair Oaks) and Sen. Liz Figueroa (D-Fremont) -- have said they will not attend this year's conference. Senate President Pro Tem John L. Burton (D-San Francisco) has never attended the union gathering but said he saw nothing wrong with other lawmakers doing so.
Assembly Speaker Herb J. Wesson (D-Culver City) has not decided whether to attend, said spokeswoman Patricia Soto.
Cox said he would spend the days before Thanksgiving with family. Brulte spokeswoman Nghia Nguyen said the senator would be too busy working with Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Republican who will replace Democratic Gov. Gray Davis on Monday. Schwarzenegger is expected to reconvene the Legislature on Tuesday, weeks before its usual Jan. 5 return to Sacramento.
Sen. Richard Alarcon (D-Sylmar), who attended last year using campaign funds, will be working at the San Fernando Valley Rescue Mission's Thanksgiving banquet Nov. 24 and 25, said spokesman Luis Patino.
Many lawmakers probably will stay in Maui through the weekend, Novey said, to attend the wedding of longtime correctional officers union lobbyist Paula Treat. She also represents the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Mission Indians, Pacific Telesis Group and Edison International.
As in the past, Novey said, the conference will involve morning panel discussions, this time covering the recall election and the state budget. Lawmakers are free in the afternoon to snorkel, golf, swim and relax.
"You can't keep their attention beyond that," Novey said. He defended the conference as an opportunity for lawmakers to build rapport and discuss politics outside of the Capitol's highly partisan atmosphere.
Last year, a couple of corporations took advantage of the union conference to confer with lawmakers. Pacific Gas & Electric Co. spent $84 each on dinners for several legislators, and drug manufacturer Pfizer Inc. invited at least a couple of attendees to a dinner that cost $261 each, according to the statements of economic interest that public officials must file each year.
Coincidentally, a family friend of Schwarzenegger said Wednesday that the governor-elect had been vacationing in Hawaii in recent days, even as his transition office released daily schedules that read: "He will hold private transition meetings and discussions with members of his transition team."
The releases did not mention Schwarzenegger's location. An aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the friend's comments late Wednesday. But officially, Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Karen Hanretty refused to confirm that the governor-elect spent the weekend in Hawaii, though she suggested that he and his family were away.
"There are a number of people throughout the state of California who understand what it's like to take a little time for yourself and family, and yet balance that with the demands of the job," Hanretty said.
Schwarzenegger's office has refused to confirm or deny reports of his exact whereabouts when he is on family time.
That had been Schwarzenegger's practice during the campaign, in which he made undisclosed trips to visit economist Arthur Laffer and to the compound in Hyannisport, Mass., owned by relatives of his wife, Maria Shriver.
Times staff writer Joe Mathews contributed to this report.