The weather is cooling in Sacramento, but a warmer climate beckons for a group of California lawmakers headed to Hawaii this week.
At least 16 California lawmakers and their legislative counterparts from Illinois, Hawaii and Texas will fly to Maui on Sunday for a policy conference organized by the Independent Voter Project, a group that draws donations from organized labor and corporations.
Sponsors who have plunked down $7,000 apiece for the privilege of participating will preside over a series of panels on topics like health care, economic development and public safety. Independent Voter Project board member Dan Howle declined to divulge the identities of donors or legislators attending but cited safeguards in place to protect against sponsors lobbying lawmakers during the policy discussions.
“We have some specific rules about what you can do in the panels,” Howle said. “You cannot have any discussion about specific legislation or pending legislation.”
Legislators can have their hotel and airfare covered, although Howle said not all of the attendees accept reimbursements. Howle said that no legislative leaders are attending and noted that some members have backed out in the aftermath of a leaked affidavit alleging that Sen. Ron Calderon, D-Montebello, accepted bribes from an undercover FBI agent. Calderon, who attended in past years and had expressed interest to Howle in this year’s conference, also decided not to attend.
“I don’t think it’s wise for me to go,” Howle said, paraphrasing lawmakers who have dropped out. “There’s too much scrutiny.”
Founded by former state lawmaker Steve Peace and others, the Independent Voter Project’s declared mission is to guide voters by providing nonpartisan civic information. As a 501(c)(4) nonprofit it does not have to disclose the identity of its donors, but filings show that its backers have included the state’s powerful correctional officers union. Its website lists pharmaceutical titan Eli Lilly and conservative benefactor Charles Munger as prominent backers.
Howle currently works for Eli Lilly, and he said that the conference will feature a presentation on a Lilly-backed website that addresses counterfeit medications.
A separate group of California lawmakers – sponsored by the Pacific Policy Research Foundation – is also meeting in Hawaii this week, Howle said.
Travels abroad during the legislative recess are commonplace for legislators. This year the globetrotting has included a trip to Switzerland that lawmakers paid for themselves and a Scandinavian jaunt subsidized by a union-and-corporate-funded nonprofit.
That doesn’t sit well with government transparency advocates, who say such trips expose elected officials to undue influence.
“It’s become an unwelcome tradition for California voters,” Phillip Ung of Common Cause said of the annual Maui pilgrimage. “Every year they read about it and every year they’re sickened by it.”