LA Times by Chris Megerian and Melanie Mason
July 27, 2014
Gov. Jerry Brown’s visit to this sprawling metropolis has all the hallmarks of an official state visit. He’ll sign agreements with foreign officials, encourage businesses to invest in California and perhaps tour some of the city’s cultural landmarks.
In two late additions to his packed agenda, Brown is also scheduled to meet privately with the Mexican president Monday and address the immigration controversy roiling American politics Tuesday.
But unlike other state functions, taxpayers won’t be paying for Brown’s four-day trip. Instead, it’s funded by scores of delegates, including business leaders and lobbyists who paid $5,000 each to travel with the governor.
The crew includes solar company executives exploring Mexico’s energy industry, farmers seeking new markets for their products and some of Sacramento’s most influential advocates, like former lawmakers Rusty Areias and Fabian Núñez. There’s even a tech company, Lyft, a ride-sharing app that matches drivers and passengers with smartphones.
Businesses and organizations hope the governor’s presence in Mexico, California’s biggest export market, will help foster money-making opportunities with local companies and government officials.
The trip could also give them an edge back in the Capitol, providing the opportunity for valuable face time with the governor and his wife — one of his closest advisors — nearly 2,000 miles away from Sacramento.
For example, the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce has been lobbying Brown to support a new film tax credit to help keep production jobs in Southern California. The organization’s president, Gary L. Toebben, is part of the trip and expects delegates to have “side conversations” about Sacramento topics.
“I think they and we would use opportunities to bring up those issues,” he said, “as long as it’s in good taste.”
Lyft doesn’t have any immediate plans to start operating in Mexico, but it is fighting legislation in the Capitol that would place new rules on the company, which competes with the taxi industry.
Michael Masserman, Lyft’s director of international government relations, said he’s not planning to lobby Brown during the trip. Still, he hopes a few days in Mexico City “will help us deepen the relationship we already have with members of the governor’s team.”
Masserman and others had a chance to start doing just that Sunday evening at a reception in Polanco, a downtown Mexico City district where the delegation is staying.
All told, nearly half of the roughly 100 delegates representing companies and industry organizations on the trip have spent money lobbying in Sacramento this year, according to records filed with the state. They’ve also provided almost $250,000 toward Brown’s reelection effort, which has banked $22.3 million so far.
The funding arrangement for Brown’s trip to Mexico is the same as his trade mission to China last year. At that time, he dismissed concerns about people traveling all the way across the Pacific Ocean to lobby him.
“I am easy to get a hold of,” he told reporters during a ride on a Chinese bullet train. “You don’t have to give to my art school or come on a train. I’m around.”
It’s not just Brown who’s getting a free ride from companies and lobbyists. Delegate fees are also covering costs for members of his administration, including the chair of the powerful Air Resources Board and the state transportation secretary.
Asked about the funding, Brown spokesman Evan Westrup said, “This trip is a unique opportunity to strengthen economic and environmental ties with Mexico and bolster trade and investment in our top export market — a benefit to all of California — without burdening taxpayers.”
Tracy Westen, chief executive of the Center for Governmental Studies, called the arrangement “outrageous.” Any taxpayer savings would dissipate, he said, if a lobbyist secures a tax break or other favorable treatment during the trip.
“It creates a very unpleasant appearance,” he said. “And that’s why it should be avoided. This is the kind of thing that undermines public confidence in government.”
Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School, said that changing how the trips were funded wouldn’t stop special interest money from flowing to politicians in other ways.
“I don’t see a perfect solution here,” she said.
William Gould, the chief technology officer at SolarReserve, said he didn’t think delegate fees will change Brown’s mind on anything.
“The fee is so small,” he said. “I don’t think it will make him beholden to us.”
His company, which helps develop solar power plants, is hoping for new opportunities in Mexico, and thinks Brown’s presence will help.
“He’s very prominent, so it’s probable we’ll have a better quality of interaction with local officials,” Gould said.
Bob Roberts, president of the California Ski Industry Assn., said these kinds of trade missions can pay off with serendipitous moments at events that attract movers and shakers.
During a similar trip roughly two decades ago, he was at a reception in London when “in walked a guy named Richard Branson.” Soon enough, there was a partnership with the entrepreneur’s vacation package company, Virgin Holidays, that has helped shuttle skiers and snowboarders from the United Kingdom to California slopes.
He’s hoping for similar luck with attracting Mexican tourists, who sometimes choose resorts in Colorado instead of California.
“This is not a lobbying opportunity,” Roberts said. “This is a chance to market.”
Fifteen lawmakers are also on the trip. Several of them, including incoming Senate leader Kevin de León (D-Los Angeles) and Latino caucus chairman Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens), are using campaign funds to pay for their travel.
For delegates, the $5,000-per-person fee also provides them with a colorful guide to the trip and Mexico City.
Travelers who might be accustomed to California’s casual style are encouraged to dress more formally, with “conservative dark suits” for men and shirts in “classic colors.” Writing down someone’s name in red ink is also considered bad luck.
Other advice may leave Californians feeling at home — the guide says not to be surprised if an earthquake rattles downtown Mexico City.