‘They go on the state dime.’ Gavin Newsom wants to get a grip on state agency travel

In El Salvador this week, Gov. Gavin Newsom said state agencies have taken a “shotgun approach” to foreign travel and that his administration is working to develop an organized system to coordinate state workers’ trips abroad.

Newsom said the governor’s office has been excluded from much of the planning when officials from state agencies travel to other countries and make agreements with foreign governments.

“None of it’s organized, people don’t even know about it,” Newsom told reporters Tuesday evening, the final night of his own first international trip as governor. “These guys all go on trips, they go on the state dime, I don’t know what they do – and there’s dozens of agencies that do this.”

The California State Protocol Foundation, a nonprofit that funds governor travel, paid for Newsom’s trip to El Salvador. But the state funds much of state agency travel, Newsom said.

“We told all the agencies just stop. Everybody stop. We need to filter this,” Newsom said. “We should do it in a strategic way... It’s been a shotgun approach.”

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He pointed to the California High Speed Rail authority as one organization with agreements with foreign governments. The agency has cooperative agreements and memoranda of understanding with at least nine foreign governments, including China, Korea and Italy.

The California Air Resources Board, meanwhile, has bilateral agreements with 16 countries and the World Bank.

State agency officials, like those at the state’s pension fund CalPERs, often travel abroad. Last year, board members traveled to Melbourne, Tokyo, London and other foreign cities.

Newsom said it’s important for California to develop relationships with foreign countries, but that the trips should be coordinated and that the state should have a unified plan about what parts of the world to prioritize relationships with.

Newsom tasked Lieutenant Gov. Eleni Kounalakis, a former U.S. Ambassador to Hungary, to tackle the issue. In her capacity as the governor’s top representative on international trade and affairs, a role Newsom announced in February, Kounalakis is leading a working group to organize agencies’ international efforts.

The committee will develop recommendations for the governor on “how to address international affairs moving forward, including travel,” Newsom spokesman Jesse Melgar said in a statement.

The committee will hold its first meeting later this year, likely in May, Kounalakis said.

“The hope here is that in coordinating among the agencies we’ll simply be able to do more and more efficiently,” Kounalakis said. “The ultimate goal is to help create more jobs in California by supporting trade and international investment and to amplify the voice of California on the world stage.”

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Sophia Bollag covers California politics and government. Before joining The Bee, she reported in Sacramento for the Associated Press and the Los Angeles Times. She grew up in California and is a graduate of Northwestern University.
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