Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Roundhouse Roundup: Will Legislators Go Hawaiian?

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
 May 12, 2011

As the Legislative Council on Monday morning discussed the probable need to restrict lawmakers’ travel reimbursements, my ears perked up when someone brought up the fact that the upcoming Council of State Governments-West annual meeting will be held in Honolulu.

That’s right, a trip to Hawaii paid for by your tax money.

Under current rules, any legislator who wants to attend that group’s annual meeting can do so and get travel expense and per diem reimbursement. The same goes for the National Conference of State Legislatures, which meets this summer in San Antonio, Texas, and the Energy Council, meeting next month in Nova Scotia.

The state pays dues to all three organizations. But Legislature leaders are talking about tightening up on travel due to budget concerns.

Exploding pineapples: The paid trip to Hawaii probably sounds tempting to many legislators. It also sounds like full employment for producers of political attack ads next year.

It’s happened before, even in years prior to the state budget crunch. Back in 2002, I looked at travel vouchers for all legislators for the previous year. Among the trips I found was an October 2001 executive-committee meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures in Honolulu attended by then Senate President Pro-tem Richard Romero, D-Albuquerque, and Sen. Joe Carraro, R-Albuquerque. The total reimbursement cost for both senators was just under $3,000.

A few months later, Romero, running for Congress against Republican Heather Wilson, saw the Hawaiian meeting come back at him in the form of a TV attack ad. If my memory serves, I think there was a hula girl in it.

Wilson ran similar ads against Romero in 2004. But the 2001 Hawaii trip still was reverberating in 2006. When Carraro ran for the U.S. Senate that year, a Republican primary opponent, Allen McCulloch, sent GOP voters a mailer showing a picture of a man and a woman lying on a beach. The text read, “Our tax dollars should be spent here at home in New Mexico — not on lavish trips to exotic vacation spots for any politician.”

I probably don’t need to mention that even though Romero and Carraro vigorously defended their island trips as legitimate legislative business, both lost those races. Some say both would have lost anyway, but the charges of junketeering didn’t help.
This is how legislators divide up the pork in Hawaii

See you at the luau? I don’t mean to imply that the CSG-West confab is all roast pig, flowered shirts and hula. As always, there will be lots of meetings and workshops about serious issues affecting Western states.

There are meetings concerning oil and gas, health care, water and the environment — and one program called “To Tweet or Not to Tweet: Promises and Pitfalls of Social Networking.”

And there’s also fun on the schedule. Here’s some of the events listed on the CSG-West website:

On July 30, there will be a poolside reception at The Edge of Waikiki, featuring “a breathtaking view of world-famous Waikiki Beach and the Pacific Ocean.”

The next night, conferees are invited to enjoy “an array of Pacific Rim cuisine, highlighting the freshest locally grown and harvested ingredients, served in the recently restored Monarch Room, one of Hawaii’s most cherished entertainment venues. It is located in the historic Royal Hawaiian Hotel, built in 1927 and affectionately known as ‘the Pink Palace of the Pacific.’ ”

Then on the last night: “A CSG-West meeting in Hawaii would not be complete without a Hawaiian-style luau, the traditional way the people of Hawaii celebrate special occasions. ... We invite you to enjoy a memorable evening of warm fellowship, delicious island food, arts and craft demonstrations, children’s activities and a spectacular Polynesian revue at the beautiful Royal Hawaiian Hotel Coconut Grove.”

And after a good luau at the Coconut Grove, you’ll be relaxed enough to come home and tell your constituents why the state can’t afford to fix their schools or help improve their water system.

And for those of you not going to the CSG-West meeting, here's a little hula for ya: