It’s Good to be the King

Posted by Jack

It’s happy hour at the Fairmont Kea Lani.

Just past four on Sunday afternoon, former state Sen. Rod Wright settles in at the lobby bar for the mai tai that he insists should kick off any trip to Maui.

Rex Frazier, president of the Personal Insurance Federation of California, wanders in and they share a laugh over dinners past at Ella in Sacramento, where Wright’s favorite vodka was always stocked. Frazier raves that Wright must try the Molokai Mule cocktail.

“I’m not reportable,” Wright joked, referring to financial disclosure forms that legislators are required to fill out, “so I can eat and drink as much as I want.”

The California Independent Voter Project’s annual conference has once again arrived at this $360-a-night hotel on Maui’s southwest shore, bringing together 21 lawmakers and dozens of corporate sponsors for five days of policy discussions and schmoozing.

Ditching suits and ties for shorts and polos, attendees rotate through morning panels covering subjects such as drug buyback programs and the digital divide in poor households. Hawaiian shirts are in disappointingly short supply. During open afternoons, they are free to relax and explore the island, often with spouses and children who have tagged along for the week.

This type of travel is nothing new for California legislators, who have been venturing overseas for decades on the dime of business groups, labor unions, foreign governments and their campaign donors. Just this year, the state Senate led study trips to Japan, Mexico, and Australia, while more junkets went unannounced.

Yet the Independent Voter Project conference, with its luxurious Hawaiian setting, has become something of a lightning rod for criticisms about the cozy relationship between lawmakers and special interests.

“Nobody thinks you’re going to Maui to learn things,” said Jack Pitney, a professor of politics at Claremont McKenna College. “If the purpose of the trip were to educate lawmakers about the problems of California, they would go to Fresno.”

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