Missouri lawmakers take trips to Israel, California, New Orleans – on the lobbyists’ dime

With Missouri struggling to fund basic services like education and health care, some might be surprised to learn that a bill pending in the Legislature would require the state to establish an economic office in Israel.

The proposal, which is projected to cost the state $250,000 in its first year, is sponsored by state Sen. Mike Parson, R-Bolivar. In February, Parson argued it would be well worth the money, providing “a tremendous opportunity for the state of Missouri” to benefit from Israel’s booming biotechnology sector.

Parson saw that booming sector for himself in December 2012, on a trip he and a half-dozen other legislators and their spouses took to Israel. They traveled there, in part, courtesy of the Jewish Federation of St. Louis and the Missouri Biotechnology Association, which together spent more than $25,000 to host the trip.

“I don’t think there’s any question that had an impact on me in filing the bill, having the opportunity to go to Israel and see firsthand what they’re doing there,” Parson said last week. “There was more significance to that than just going over there and having fun. It was mainly business … When you’re talking about a golf trip, that’s a different thing.”

The Israel trip was part of more than $200,000 that various industry and special interest groups have expended to pay for shuttling, lodging, food and activities — including golf — for Missouri lawmakers on trips to New Orleans, California, Utah and elsewhere in the past three years, according to a Post-Dispatch analysis of public records.

The records show the travel-related spending in many cases includes airline tickets and hotel rooms. It also comes in the form of meals while on trips, convention fees and other related spending.

In lobbyist gift records, the actual spending is generally attributed to a company, industry or trade organization, but it is linked in the records to specific lobbyists — that is, people whose job is to influence legislators.

Lobbyists represent the companies or associations that pay for the travel, and they are the ones who know the lawmakers and arrange the trips. Perhaps not surprisingly, they vehemently defend the travel as crucial educational outings rather than pleasure junkets.

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