Lavish trips on taxpayers' dime are very easy targets

Government officials should be more sensitive to public concerns when scheduling conferences.

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Two Republican U.S. senators -- Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Chuck Grassley of Iowa -- are outraged because the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is holding a conference for judges at a posh resort on Maui (is there any other kind?).

"Americans struggling to pay their bills," Sessions said Monday, "are tired of watching the government throw lavish events on the taxpayer dime."

Democratic U.S. senators -- the pair who represent Hawaii -- are outraged by the outrage.

The state is much more than "sunsets and beautiful beaches," said Sen. Daniel Inouye, adding he resents "the implication that no serious discussion can take place in Hawaii."

This should not be a partisan issue. Yet, it certainly seems to be on the way to becoming one.

The San Francisco-based 9th Circuit Court of Appeals is the most liberal in the country. Its left-leaning rulings tend to irk conservatives, including a great many Republicans in Congress.

So news of the Maui conference set for August at the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort & Spa became a political target. The public is already sensitive to travel abuses in the wake of the General Services Administration's lavish taxpayer-funded conference in Las Vegas. In 2010 the 9th Circuit's conference on Maui with nearly 700 participants cost taxpayers more than $1.1 million in travel and accommodation expenses, and this trip isn't likely to be less expensive.

The GOP criticism has merit.

However, it would have more force if it were framed as a condemnation of lavish resorts anywhere by all federal agencies.

Hawaii's senators, as well as its tourism officials, have a legitimate reason to become defensive. Conventions -- such as those held at Walla Walla's Marcus Whitman Hotel and Conference Center -- can be valuable. They can benefit the employees who attend and the taxpayers who foot the bill.

Ultimately, it depends on whether the costs and location are reasonable in relation to the business being done.

It seems, given the 9th Circuit met in Hawaii just two years ago and the economy has yet to fully recover, finding a less-expensive meeting place on the mainland (perhaps in an economically distressed region of the court's jurisdiction) might be more prudent.

Perception is reality.

Folks throughout the country (including Hawaii) continue to struggle financially, so they don't want to see public employees living the high life on their dime. It makes no difference how much work gets done or how they enjoyed themselves.

When eating tropical fruit is the closest people get to an island vacation, they simply can't be convinced a convention at a Hawaiian resort is anything but an abuse of their tax dollars.

The judges of the 9th Circuit Court -- as well as all government agencies (at the federal state and local levels) -- need to be more sensitive to public concerns when scheduling conventions.

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