California legislators head to Maui for retreat funded by special interests
Reporting from Sacramento -- With temperatures dropping in Sacramento, some state lawmakers are migrating to the sunny beaches of Hawaii this week for a conference at a luxury resort, subsidized and attended by special interests that lobby the Legislature.
About 15 lawmakers are scheduled to attend the annual gathering in Maui, where they will stay at the Fairmont Kea Lani hotel on the tab of the Independent Voter Project, a nonprofit policy group largely funded by business and labor interests.
The group’s financial supporters include cigarette maker Altria, Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas & Electric, the California Beer and Beverage Distributors, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Assn., Chevron and the state prison guards union.
The five-day event, running this weekend through Nov. 18, features panels on prison issues, biofuel and pollution at the Salton Sea, according to organizers including former Democratic state Sen. Steve Peace. He co-founded the group with former Republican Assemblyman Jeff Marston.
Peace said the conference allows lawmakers to “get to know each other and talk about issues in depth,” away from Capitol pressures. “It’s those kinds of relationships that allow people to bridge partisanship.”
Open-government advocates say the occasion also allows representatives of corporations and unions undue access and influence as they garner one-on-one time with decision-makers at poolside or on the golf course.
“It provides an opportunity for powerful interests to wine and dine the elected officials and make the case for policies that benefit prison guards and corporations but may not benefit ordinary Californians,” said Derek Cressman, regional director for Common Cause.
Those planning to attend the conference include Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez (D-Los Angeles) and state Sens. Tom Berryhill (R-Modesto), Curren Price Jr. (D-Los Angeles) and Ron Calderon (D-Montebello).
Pérez does not think the gathering, held annually in Maui, gives special interests inappropriate influence, said spokesman John Vigna. He also noted that no public funds are involved and that the lawmakers are required to report the gift of lodging and other expenses to the state Fair Political Practices Commission.
“Our view is: It’s a good opportunity for legislators and policy experts to come together and discuss some of the policy issues facing California, as long as taxpayers aren’t paying for it and as long as it’s appropriately reported,” Vigna said.
State law generally prohibits lawmakers from accepting gifts worth more than $420, but there is an exception for conference travel and lodging paid for by nonprofit groups.
The $195,000 cost of last year’s Maui gathering was paid for by the Independent Voter Project with money from 50 donors. Executives and lobbyists representing 35 of those sponsors attended the conference, according to Daniel Howle, an executive with drug maker Lilly USA and one of the conference organizers.
Firms that do not pay $10,000 or more as sponsors of the Independent Voter Project are charged about $6,500 per person to attend the conference. The money raised covers the $2,500 average cost of a lawmaker’s trip, including the $325-per-night hotel room, as well as receptions and a conference dinner, Howle said. About half of the attending legislators use political accounts to pay for their flights, Howle said.
The event is relaxed, and some lawmakers bring spouses. Between panel discussions on economic development and healthcare, lawmakers can swim at the beach or in one of the resort’s three pools, play golf or tennis, or dine with corporate officials.
During last year’s conference, state Sen. Roderick Wright (D-Inglewood) had a gourmet dinner at the Four Seasons Resort Maui with representatives of the California Cable and Telecommunications Assn., which paid for his $186 meal. Wright said the conference and his activities there had no influence on his legislation.
This year, he proposed a tax on satellite providers — competitors of cable companies, which say they are taxed unfairly.
One of the interests that will be represented in Maui this year, PG&E, is sending Ed Bedwell, its vice president for state government relations, to participate in a panel on energy issues. The discussion will include proposed changes in the rules governing credits for electricity customers who use solar and other renewable energy, said spokeswoman Lynsey Paulo.
The prison guards union, the California Correctional Peace Officers Assn., also will be represented. Its emissaries want to talk to lawmakers about the state’s effort to keep many felons in county jails instead of sending them to state prisons, said JeVaughn Baker, a union spokesman.
That realignment of responsibility “is going to be a huge topic of discussion,” Baker said.
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