By Jim Sanders
Published: Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2010 – 12:00 am | Page 1A

Some California lawmakers were packing their bags for Hawaii last week when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced he was calling a special December legislative session to tackle a projected $25.4 billion deficit.

Others already were there.

Mixing business with pleasure, about two dozen legislators are hobnobbing with interest groups in a tropical paradise this month while discussing green energy, health care, government reform and other key issues.

The largest of two Hawaii conferences, held in Maui this week, is providing free travel and lodging to lawmakers underwritten by donations to a nonprofit group from some of the state’s most powerful interests – energy providers, pharmaceutical companies and the prison officers’ union.

Lawmakers are joined by lobbyists and corporate officials who will seek their votes when the Legislature convenes next month.

Maui’s Fairmont Kea Lani resort, which bills itself as “a luxurious haven in one of the most scenic places on earth” is hosting the finale of back-to-back conferences that began with a separate and smaller event in Kauai last week.

Legislators’ airfare and lodging for the Maui gathering are paid by the conference in return for their leadership and participation in discussions on key state issues, said Steve Peace, a leader of the event.

The conference is funded by the California Independent Voter Project, or CAIVP, a nonprofit public policy group led by two former lawmakers – Peace, a Democrat, and Republican Jeff Marston. The group drafted the open-primary plan passed by voters in June.

Twenty-two legislators – including Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, D-Los Angeles – are among nearly 175 people at the Maui conference, which includes lobbyists and corporate officials from CAIVP’s contributors, Peace said.

Participants include the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas and Electric Co., pharmaceutical companies, and the California Manufacturers and Technology Association, he said.

“What we’re able to do in this environment is to expose legislators to a more in-depth conversation about serious issues,” Peace said. “It also is an opportunity for the members to get to know each other on a more personal level.”

Most of the state’s 120 legislators are not participating, however.

“In this case, I just have limited vacation time, and I think the idea of mixing that much politics with a family vacation would never fly with my family,” said Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael.

Attending Hawaii conferences can be politically risky – for example, Republican U.S. Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Gold River, was targeted this year by attack ads showing him shirtless at a posh tropical resort while attending a conference held by an aviation- lobbying group.

Pérez, through spokeswoman Shannon Murphy, said no public funds are being spent for the Maui event and that this week is practical because lawmakers will not reconvene until Dec. 6.

In their spare time, participants can enjoy a breathtaking combination of sun, sea and turf. The Kea Lani touts a sandy swimming beach, three swimming pools, fine dining, and activities ranging from sailing to kayaking to golf.

Names of legislators attending the Maui conference are not readily available, although any campaign funds spent on the trip must be disclosed by Jan. 31 and any gifts received from interest groups must be reported by March 1.

Assembly Republican leader Connie Conway attended the event for one day while in Maui on a personal vacation bought long ago, spokesman Seth Unger said.

A sampling of calls by The Bee to the Kea Lani found rooms registered to Assembly members Isadore Hall, D-Compton, and Cameron Smyth, R-Santa Clarita; and incoming or incumbent Sens. Bill Emmerson, R-Hemet; Tony Strickland, R-Moorpark; Ron Calderon, D-Montebello; Rod Wright, D-Inglewood; Juan Vargas, D-San Diego; Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa; and Tom Berryhill, R-Modesto.

Hawaii conferences by interest groups are a longstanding Capitol tradition, but since 2005, nonprofit organizations have led the charge by soliciting donations that need not be disclosed.

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