Governor Jerry Brown recently returned from a trip to China, the purpose of which was to increase trade between the country and the Golden State. He was accompanied by 10 staffers. Sounds expensive, right? It no doubt was.
You might be wondering how strapped taxpayers could afford to foot the bill for such an international trip. Well, you need not ponder this issue. Brown did not travel on the public dime. Instead special interest groups footed the bill for his international voyage. These groups include the California Beer and Beverage Distributors, the California Hospital Association, Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, State Farm Insurance, Bank of America, Wells Fargo & Co., United Airlines, HSBC, and Siemens. No doubt, all of these groups would like to secure favorable treatment by the state.
Many smart people have voiced concern over this arrangement. It strains common sense to think that special interests that lobby state officials do not want something from Brown in return for their generosity. By definition, lobbyists would not do their jobs if they did not attempt to persuade public officials. There is nothing illegal about this set up. One problem, however, is that those without money or lobbyists do not gain the same access and/or ability to influence their elected officials.
So is the solution, as some have proposed, to prohibit special interests from funding these trips? Well, that also raises concerns. For one, the state is not exactly flush with money, and whenever we can save taxpayer dollars, we should. For another, these trips can serve important purposes: If Brown is able to increase trade and revenue, it would be very difficult to say that the trip did not pay off. It would be a shame for Brown and other officials to miss out on these trips all together.
As with so many other issues related to campaign finance, ethics, conflicts of interest, and lobbying, the decision of where and how to draw a line is a difficult one.