Oregon lawmakers’ overseas trips funded by lobby groups, Taiwanese government

State Reps. Hai Pham, D-Hillsboro; Ben Bowman, D-Tigard, and Nathan Sosa, D-Portland, pose for a selfie in front of Google’s Silicon Valley headquarters.
Photo: Hai Pham’s legislative newsletter

Oregon lawmakers jetted off to Taiwan, Portugal, Denmark and tech hubs in California this fall, all paid for by companies and groups that have a keen interest in the laws they’ll pass. 

These junkets, once common, have been rarer in recent years due to the COVID pandemic and associated travel restrictions. One planned trip to Israel, paid for by the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland and scheduled for the first week of December, was nixed after a war started in the region. 

While some trips took lawmakers to tourist destinations, those who went say they were a far cry from the luxurious lobbyist-paid trips to Hawaii, China and Israel taken by lawmakers in the 2000s that resulted in stricter state ethics laws.

Now, lawmakers need approval from the House clerk or Senate secretary, as well as advice from the Oregon Government Ethics Commission, before they can accept travel expenses. And they need to prove that the trip is related to trade or qualifies as a fact-finding mission. 

“This was no vacation,” said Rep. David Gomberg, an Otis Democrat who joined the trade trip to Taiwan. “This was ‘arrive in the morning after a long flight and the first meeting is at noon.’ It was ‘get a shower in the hotel, get on the bus, go to a meeting, get your picture taken, get back on the bus, go to another meeting, get your picture taken, have a meal, get on the bus, go to another meeting.” 

The groups that paid for the trips have a vested interest in legislative actions. The Taiwanese government and foreign companies want to keep Oregon as a trading partner. The Health Justice Recovery Alliance, formed by backers of drug decriminalization law Measure 110, paid for a trip to Portugal to observe its drug decriminalization efforts as part of its push to preserve Oregon’s law. And tech giants like Apple and Google, which backed trips to California, are wary of bills to regulate artificial intelligence or guarantee consumers the right to repair damaged electronics. 

Lawmakers who went on the trips say they’re well aware that lobbyists are trying to influence them.

“I would never make a policy decision based on a single trip alone,” said Sen. Kate Lieber, D-Beaverton and the Senate majority leader. “I would never make a policy decision without talking to the other side. And quite frankly, if a lobbyist is worth their salt, I always ask them ‘What was the opposition going to say?’ Many of them will tell me, and I think it’s important to have that discussion too. I just don’t view it as swaying me one way or the other, and I certainly don’t owe them anything.”

In the past, lawmakers were often wined and dined, given pricey presents and pumped up with parties. But Lieber said today’s junkets are streamlined affairs focused on business. 

“It’s not like we’re going off on the taxpayer dime, having a boondoggle and going into these restaurants and having bottle service, right? It’s just not what’s happening,” Lieber said.

The trip: 2023 Northwest Legislative Leaders Delegation to Taiwan, Sept. 17-23

Who went: Sens. James Manning, D-Eugene; Aaron Woods, D-Wilsonville; and David Brock Smith, R-Port Orford; Reps. David Gomberg, D-Otis; and Paul Evans, D-Monmouth.

Who paid: The Taiwanese government covered airfare, ground transportation, lodging and “trip-related entertainment”

What they did: Met with Taiwanese government officials and representatives of Taiwanese companies to discuss trade. Taiwan was the state’s seventh largest trading partner last year and is the largest importer of Oregon-made semiconductors and fourth-largest importer of Oregon-grown wheat. The state agriculture department and representatives of agricultural businesses made their own trip to Taiwan later in the fall.

Lawmakers stayed at the Palais de Chine, described by the Michelin Guide as one of Taipei’s most upscale hotels. They spent most of their time in meetings, including with the Taiwanese ministries of North American Affairs, Economic Affairs, Agriculture and Education. 

They also met with representatives of Taiwanese companies, including Yulon Motors, EVA Airways and Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation. 

Brock Smith, who represents the southern coast of Oregon, was particularly interested in talks about expanding trade out of the Port of Coos Bay. He’s trying to encourage private investment in a project to expand the port and a rail line that connects to the national rail system in Eugene. 

“We’re looking at thousands of jobs, taking thousands of trucks off the road,” he said. 

And lawmakers did some sightseeing—a visit to the National Palace Museum, which has more than 700,000 Chinese artifacts, an excursion on a boat on Sun Moon Lake and a trip to Lung Shan Temple, built in 1738. 

Gomberg paused when asked about the “trip-related entertainment,” then clarified that he wasn’t hesitating to answer.

“I’m trying to remember anything that might qualify as entertainment,” he said. “I mean, no, we didn’t go to any shows. We didn’t go to any music events. We had dinner, and on one of the side trips, we were near a lake and we went out on a boat for about an hour. I guess that was entertaining.” 

For Brock Smith, the trip was anything but luxurious. His luggage didn’t make it onto a connecting flight in San Francisco, and he couldn’t find new clothes that fit in Taiwanese stores. He’s tucked in the back of pictures from the trip, trying to hide that he’s wearing the same clothes he arrived in. 

But even if the trip had gone more smoothly, he said the Taiwanese government wouldn’t have any power over his legislative votes. 

“I don’t know that we would ever vote on anything that has to do with Taiwan in the Oregon Legislature,” he said. “I guess the same question can be asked, if Pfizer gives me a campaign donation, would that influence my vote on anything having to do with pharmaceuticals? And I would tell you it doesn’t. In fact, Pfizer has donated to my campaign before but yet I partnered with Representative Nosse a couple of sessions ago in limiting drug companies’ ability to increase the prices of their drugs.” 

Evans split from the group when it visited the Sun Moon Lake area, instead traveling on his own dime to Kaohsiung for meetings with local governments about emergency management and potentials for educational exchanges. After returning home, he sent House Speaker Dan Rayfield two trip reports: a five-page outline of his observations and recommendations to strengthen Oregon’s trade relationship with Taiwan and increase exchanges between Oregon and Taiwanese universities, as well as a nine-page proposal laying out lessons Oregon could take from Taiwan on emergency management. The country deals with typhoons each year.

It’s the second trip Evans has taken with third-party funding since he took office in 2015, though he traveled to Vietnam and to Washington, D.C., on legislative business this fall using his own personal and campaign funds. He took out a loan to help pay for some of that travel.

“If it was a lobby group paying for it, if it was something where there was money involved in terms of personal wealth or something like that, I can understand concern,” Evans said. “But the Taiwan trip was a government-to-government exchange. They didn’t ask anything that I wasn’t already doing. And in fact, I spent more time advocating for their investments and for their support of our programs and educational institutions, than they did anything in terms of suggesting a policy for me.”

The trip: Oregon Health Justice Recovery Alliance visit to Portugal, Oct. 29-Nov. 3

Who went: Sens. Kate Lieber, D-Beaverton, and Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene; Rep. Rob Nosse, D-Portland, and then-Rep. Lily Morgan, R-Grants Pass.

Who paid: The Health Justice Recovery Alliance, which offered stipends up to $2,500 to cover airfare, food and lodging. Lieber, co-chair of a legislative committee on Oregon’s addiction crisis, paid for her own travel, lodging and other miscellaneous expenses, but received permission from the ethics commission to eat two provided dinners, ride on chartered buses and work with an interpreter hired by the organization. 

What they did: Met with Portuguese drug policy experts, law enforcement and members of Parliament and visited treatment and harm reduction sites. There was also time in the schedule for the Oregon delegation, which included police, prosecutors and advocates, to discuss what they learned. 

Wednesday, Nov. 1, was labeled “Lisbon Holiday Free Day” in the schedule submitted to the House for review, with time for visits to Lisbon destinations including St. George Castle, built in the 10th and 11th centuries. The trip’s organizer recommended visitors stay at either the NH Collection Lisboa Liberdade or the Avani Avenida Liberidad, where it reserved rooms for between 223 and 233 euro (about $250) per night. 

Lieber said it was important for her to pay her own way because she didn’t want the trip’s funding to be a distraction. She also insisted that the Health Justice Recovery Alliance invite law enforcement, saying that she wanted to be sure they had balanced conversations.

The Legislature’s Joint Committee on Addiction and Community Safety Response is tasked with coming up with ideas to address the state’s addiction crisis before critics of drug decriminalization law Measure 110 ask voters to repeal it. She said she used her time off to walk around the city and talk to police officers and addicts. 

Lieber said she could have learned some of what she took away from the Portugal trip without leaving Oregon, but she wouldn’t have had the full picture. And she wouldn’t have had the same opportunities to connect with other attendees—she can now call up the president of the Portland Police Association or the formerly addicted executive director of recovery program Bridges to Change and get frank answers to questions. She’s continuing to talk to as many people as possible while working on policies. 

Nosse accepted a stipend because he wouldn’t have been able to afford the trip without it. He said he was frank about that with his constituents in his newsletter, and that he’s never felt pressure to vote a certain way because of trips or campaign donations 

“I think part of my job as a legislator is to listen to people and organizations and smart people and experts and even people that aren’t smart sometimes,” he said. “And I think I do a pretty good job of that. Just because somebody makes a donation or allows you to go observe something up close in a way that you might not otherwise be able to, they still have to have a good argument and good reason and something that’s politically viable and affordable. All those things still come into account.”

The trip: Oregon Legislature delegation visit to Apple, Google and eBay in California, Nov. 1-3

Who went: Sens. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, and Mark Meek, D-Gladstone; Reps. Ben Bowman, D-Tigard; Mark Owens, R-Crane; Hai Pham, D-Portland; Nathan Sosa, D-Hillsboro, and Washington lawmakers

Who paid: Apple, Technet, eBay and Google paid for flights, ground transportation, lodging and meals

What they did: Toured Google, Apple and eBay headquarters and participated in a Google briefing about artificial intelligence, an Apple briefing about the company’s environmental practices and an eBay discussion about the company’s business model and online marketplaces.

They stayed at the AC Hotel Palo Alto, a Marriott hotel that caters to business travelers and had meals paid for by the companies. They spent about half a day at each company, traveling by shuttle. 

Bowman said he was surprised to be invited because one of his first bills was adversarial to technology companies. The new law bans TikTok and other apps linked to the Chinese and Russian governments from being downloaded on state devices. 

He said he took the trip as a rare opportunity to hear directly from subject matter experts who work in the tech field every day. Afterwards, he wrote about the trip in his constituent newsletter, including questions about how artificial intelligence could be used. One constituent who heard about the trip reached out and set up a coffee meeting to talk about how AI could be used in schools. 

“Every conversation I have about a bill should inform the context that I have about that bill, but no one person, group, entity should decide how I vote,” Bowman said. “You cast a wide net, you hear from as many people as you can and you try to build as much context and on the ground experience, from all positions possible to inform your viewpoint. You want to understand how everyone’s going to think about your decision when you make it and then ultimately make the decision that you believe is right for the public.” 

Owens said it was helpful to have Washington lawmakers on the same trip to discuss policies across the West Coast instead of just in Oregon. He said he isn’t persuaded by lobbyists offering travel, noting that he already spends about a third of his nights on the road and would rather be at home in eastern Oregon. 

“I could have traveled out of state, paid for by others, at least three times a month all summer,” Owens said. “There’s endless opportunities of people trying to educate us, learn us, teach us or show us a good time. I try to be careful and choose ones that I think are worth the value of my time.” 

The trip: i-Sustain trip to Denmark, Sept. 10-15 

Who went: Sens. Janeen Sollman, D-Hillsboro and Lynn Findley, R-Vale; and Reps. Bobby Levy, R-Echo; Emerson Levy, D-Bend; and Mark Owens, R-Crane 

Who paid: Northwest Natural Gas and other utilities, through the Washington-based corporation International Sustainable Solutions Inc. 

What they did: Met with the Danish Energy Agency, toured a half dozen energy plants and talked with Danish companies and academics about the country’s efforts to use more green energy. The trip was focused around Denmark’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions from natural gas. 

Emerson Levy, a vice chair of the House Climate, Energy and Environment Committee, said she left Denmark impressed by how united the country was around a common goal of moving toward clean energy use. That same cohesion doesn’t exist in Oregon, where Northwest Natural and two other gas companies scored a key victory recently in a lawsuit that sought to undermine the state’s landmark climate protection regulations. 

“I walked away from Denmark thinking about transmission in a completely different way,” Levy said. “And I don’t think I would have had that same experience if I hadn’t seen it, because you could explain it to me but when we arrived on the ground, seeing how green labs work and all this stuff, it just completely made me think about energy and how we handle large loads of energy in a different way.” 

Owens, who has one of the highest ratings among legislative Republicans from environmental groups and has worked on clean energy legislation, said it was important to learn from Denmark. He said no one would consider the trip a vacation, saying they spent 10 to 12 hours in meetings or tours or traveling between locations, staying in different hotels most nights. 

“We did take the time to have a group dinner every evening where we can talk about what occurred and the next but it was by no means a vacation or sightseeing,” he said. “In fact, if I ever travel that far and get to do something like that again, I will personally spend some time and money to spend a couple extra days sightseeing.” 

The trip: Reloop Europe Reuse Tour, Sept. 17-22 in Germany, Belgium and France 

Who went: Reps. Emerson Levy, D-Bend, and Ricki Ruiz, D-Gresham, and out-of-state lawmakers. 

Who paid: Reloop, an international nonprofit organization that encourages large-scale reusing of packaging materials to cut down on waste. 

What they did: Levy was already in Europe for the Denmark trip and accepted a scholarship from Reloop to join the tour. The organization pegged costs at around $7,400 per person, including airfare, lodging, meals and administrative and facility costs connected to the tours. 

The focus was on refillable beverage containers: Many European countries charge deposits when purchasing beverages, as Oregon does. But instead of those returned bottles being recycled, they’re washed and refilled. It’s the kind of system Oregonians might have encountered buying milk at farmers markets or small grocery stores, but on a much larger scale. 

The group, which also included lawmakers from Washington, New York, Massachusetts and New Jersey, visited stores in Duisburg, Germany, to see how consumers interact with the system, toured a washing facility and met with European policymakers to discuss how to use the system. 

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