It's mid-November. The election is over, and the new legislative session has not yet begun. Perfect time for a lawmaker to take vacation or go on an "educational" trip with some of the Capitol's most powerful interest groups.
At least two dozen California legislators and some of the lobbyists who seek to influence them have fanned out across the globe this month to discuss energy, health care, international trade and other policy issues. Destinations for the talks? Hawaii, Brazil, China, Australia and New Zealand.
Some of the trips are paid for by corporate sponsors, some by the officeholders themselves. Some involve legislators hobnobbing with foreign dignitaries on official state visits, while others provide the chance for lawmakers and lobbyists to socialize by the pool or on the golf course.
Watchdog groups say the trips create overly cozy relationships between interest groups and the lawmakers that are supposed to regulate them.
But the trip organizers argue that they give legislators an in-depth education on policy matters that is difficult to achieve during the daily grind in the Capitol.
"These are very much working trips," said P.J. Johnston, spokesman for a nonprofit called the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy.
The group is hosting a two-week trip to Brazil this month, where five state legislators are joined by executives from Chevron and PG&E, as well as labor leaders and environmentalists. Their mission: to learn about Brazil's low carbon fuel standard, its transportation and water infrastructure and a deforestation prevention program
"These are study tours of factories, of public infrastructure projects, private public partnerships, meetings and round tables with high-ranking officials in other countries," Johnston said.
He said the cost of the trip not yet determined will be reported as a gift to the lawmakers attending: Republican state Sens. Anthony Cannella of Ceres, Bill Emmerson of Hemet and Mimi Walters of Laguna Niguel, as well as Democratic Sen. Michael Rubio of East Bakersfield and Democratic Assemblyman Steven Bradford of Gardena, who chairs the utilities and commerce committee.
The California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy sponsors similar trips every year for lawmakers and industry representatives. Last year it sent groups to Italy and the United Kingdom, the year before that to Spain.
The foundation receives funding from its members energy and telecommunication companies, labor unions and environmental groups. Those are all interests that do big business at the Capitol and stand to benefit from enhanced relationships with lawmakers.
Some advocates who don't participate in the travel are frustrated that their adversaries are getting a leg up in the battle to shape policy.
"They who pay for the education have a way to decide what the legislators are going to be educated on," said Dan Jacobson, a lobbyist for Environment California, which is not a member of CFEE. "It's not a full education - it's a partial education and will end up being a (biased) education trip."
Sharing hotels, meals and exciting experiences with interest groups creates an imbalance for legislators, Jacobson said, where moneyed interests are favored over everyday constituents.
Another roughly 20 California lawmakers are hopping planes for Maui, where two back-to-back policy conferences are taking place this month.
More than a dozen of them including Assemblymembers Connie Conway, R-Tulare; Charles Calderon, D-Whittier, and Steven Knight, R-Palmdale are lodged in the Fairmont Kea Lani hotel this week for the annual invitation-only conference sponsored by the California Independent Voter Project. The nonprofit public policy group is funded through various business, labor and other groups that send representatives to the conference where they can schmooze with legislators.
The Kea Lani resort, which describes itself as a "luxurious haven in one of the most scenic places on Earth," touts a sandy beach, three swimming pools, fine dining, and activities that include sailing and kayaking.
Legislators participate each morning in discussions on health care, energy, economic development, telecommunications, public safety and other issues. Afternoons are free to mingle, socialize or enjoy Maui's tourist attractions.
"There's something about being here that makes for a better degree of cooperation," said event organizer Dan Howle. "You get people who are polar opposites talking here, and some of that carries over into Sacramento and it doesn't happen in California."
Fifty or 60 sponsors pay the tab, Howle said, which covers lawmakers' travel to Maui and their hotel tabs unless they opt to pay their own way. Conway's office said she paid for her own airfare.
Political issues to be discussed include the possibility of requiring instant online reporting of political donations, Howle said, and moving California's primary elections from June to September.
A separate nonprofit group, Pacific Policy Research Foundation, is scheduled to host a second Maui conference later this week, with about eight to 10 legislators expected, Howle said. Representatives for Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, Assemblyman Marty Block, D-San Diego and Assemblywomen Nora Campos, D-San Jose and Susan Bonilla, D-Concord, said those lawmakers are planning to attend.
Phillip Ung of California Common Cause, a government watchdog group, criticized the travel.
"It gives an unfair advantage to the most powerful players in the lobbying industry because they're able to pow-wow with these folks in an exclusive resort," he said, adding that members of Congress are not allowed to participate in trips organized or attended by lobbyists.
"We'd like to see these trips either banned or more difficult to accomplish" in California, Ung said.
The state Senate is sponsoring a 13-day study trip to New Zealand and Australia this month for four legislators and a staff member. They'll be meeting with lawmakers, government officials and business executives in those countries to talk about education, economic, trade, clean energy, emergency management and other issues, according to Senate spokesman Mark Hedlund.
The four participating senators who pay for their travel and hotel bills are Senate Republican leader Bob Huff, of Diamond Bar; Jean Fuller, R-Bakersfield; Mark DeSaulnier, D-Concord; and Juan Vargas, D-San Diego.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg said the trips can't all be painted with the same brush.
"There are some, quote, conferences, in certain places that I personally haven't attended because that doesn't feel right to me," he said. "But separate from those kinds of trips, the Senate itself has a very good international relations program."
Steinberg said he went on an official Senate trip to Vietnam and China at this time last year.
"I defend it. I think that they are important and worthy," he said. "I think it is appropriate and important for elected officials to see what and how other countries are addressing similar problems to the problems that we face."
Editors Note: This story has been updated from print and online versions to reflect updated information from the California Foundation on the Environment and the Economy. Assemblyman Ricardo Lara and a Shell executive were scheduled to attend the group's trip Brazil but both canceled, the organization said.