Gov. Jerry Brown likes to portray his administration as frugal when it comes to spending taxpayers' money. So he has taken the same approach as his predecessor, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in paying for his trade mission to China asking business interests and political donors to foot the bill.
Some 90 business leaders from a variety of industries are paying $10,000 each to join Brown on his weeklong trip to China and cover the costs for Brown and other state officials, according to the Bay Area Council, a business group that helped organize the trip.
The delegates get access to the high-level Chinese officials with whom Brown is meeting and a chance to spend time with Brown, when they may seek to influence his thinking on issues that are important to them. Such access is at the heart of many political contributions and the endless fundraisers lawmakers hold during which lobbyists pay to mingle with decision-makers.
"If he uses taxpayer money, he gets accused of junketeering. If he uses corporate money, he's accused of bowing to corporate influence. And if he doesn't go at all, he's accused of failing to promote California's interest in the world's largest country,'' said Jack Pitney, a professor at Claremont McKenna College. "So whatever he does, he's going to face criticism.''
Unlike Schwarzenegger, an internationally known movie star before he took office, Brown has to introduce himself to the Chinese. To avoid criticism at home, all Brown can do is to be transparent about how the trip is being financed, Pitney said.
Brown's office has so far declined to provide details about the trip's costs, saying such requests are premature. Rufus Jeffris, a spokesman for the Bay Area Council, said the expenses will be made public when the trip is finished.
Among those paying the $10,000 fee to participate in the trip are bankers, architects, clean energy investors, winery owners and several heads of business groups such as California Chamber of Commerce President Allan Zaremberg.
Jeffris said expanding trade and investment with China is critical to the state, but after years of deep budget cuts, California has a lot of priorities for its state budget, such as education and health care.
"It's not able to fund all of those priorities, as well. This is an important issue for California business and something we believed was urgent and needed right now,'' Jeffris said. "Businesses can help the state accomplish this.''
Boosting the state's trade and business opportunities benefits both the state and private companies, he said.
The Bay Area Council also will provide private financing for a California trade office the governor helped open Friday in Shanghai. It is expected to cost about $1 million a year to operate and its donors will be made public under legislation Brown signed last year.
The Democratic governor's trip is similar to the 15 international trips Schwarzenegger took during his two terms. On a 2010 trip to China, South Korea and Japan, Schwarzenegger was accompanied by the state's agriculture, business, and transportation and labor secretaries. About 100 business leaders and officials with the California Chamber of Commerce also accompanied him.
The private, corporate-funded California State Protocol Foundation, run by Chamber of Commerce officials, paid for Schwarzenegger's trade missions through private donations listed as travel gifts to the governor's office. The state Fair Political Practices Commission has since changed the rules governing such gifts, imposing a $420 limit per donor if the money is intended specifically for the governor's activities.
Interest was so high in Brown's trip to China his first outside the country since taking office in January 2011 that business leaders quickly snapped up spots on the delegation. Some had to be turned away, said Jim Wunderman, president of the Bay Area Council.
The governor also is accompanied by his wife, Anne Gust Brown, and about a dozen state officials, including the chairman of the board of California's High-Speed Rail Authority and the president of the California Travel and Tourism Commission.