Back in June, Governor Maura Healey traveled to Ireland, where, in addition to addressing the Irish Senate on the 30th anniversary of the country’s decriminalization of homosexuality, she held a series of meetings and roundtables with business executives. The total cost of the trip, which included expenses for a handful of accompanying staff and appointees, was roughly $84,000, and notably, taxpayers didn’t foot the entire bill; nearly half of it was paid for by business leaders.
That may sound like it poses a conflict of interest for the governor or like business executives could be trying to use the trip to buy influence in the state government. But Healey’s funding was by all accounts above board when it comes to state ethics rules, which allow for private funding to be used for travel so long as officials disclose it, as the governor did.
In fact, covering foreign travel expenses with some combination of public and private funds is relatively standard practice for governors in Massachusetts and elsewhere. When former governor Charlie Baker took his first official overseas trip, for example, his administration touted the fact that taxpayer dollars would not be used to fund his expenses. Other than security costs, his trip was covered by private groups like the New England-Israel Business Council. And Baker’s predecessor, Deval Patrick, famously caused some controversy for how he paid for his international travel, setting up a trust fund that, while legal, somewhat obscured how money was being spent.
In Healey’s case, the governor was hoping to use the trip in part to convince some companies to consider expanding to Massachusetts, which is certainly an important aspect of any governor’s job. “Foreign travel has positive benefits for our state’s economy and competitiveness,” a spokesperson for the governor said in a statement, and that is undoubtedly true.
And as with her predecessors, funding the trip at least in part through private funds is ultimately intended to save taxpayers’ money. But when a governor is traveling to conduct official business, should private entities or individuals — ones who could at some point stand to benefit from or get hurt by any partnerships the governor forges — really be paying for the governor’s travel?
The accepted practice of allowing private donors to cover these kinds of official activities will all but guarantee some conflict of interest in the future, even if those donors don’t have any prospective contracts with the state at the time of their contributions. One of the groups that contributed to Healey’s trip, for example, is the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, a coalition of executives from major businesses that include Bank of America, the State Street Corporation, Suffolk Construction, and The Kraft Group, among many others.
Even though the state’s financial disclosure rules aim to alleviate any potential conflicts of interest by requiring officials to publicly list these transactions, those can only go so far on their own. After all, these are the sorts of companies that stand to bid for government contracts at some point or another, and allowing them to partially pay for the governor and her staff to conduct official business could, at the very least, create the appearance of a conflict of interest, if not an actual one, somewhere down the line. That’s why the state government should generally pay its own way when it comes to travel expenses for public employees across the board, be they a governor or a lower level civil servant.
There should, of course, be exceptions given the nature of both government work and politics. If, say, the governor is invited on a diplomatic trip and is treated to a meal or stay by a foreign government, then they should be allowed to accept. And if a governor is participating in events for political parties, then those should indeed be paid for by the party, not the state. That’s where disclosure laws are important and useful. But having private individuals pay for legitimate business trips seems, on its face, unwise. Wealthy donors already have far too many avenues to buy influence in politics and government, from independent expenditure committees to bountiful inauguration funds. This is an opportunity for lawmakers to shut one of those avenues down.
To be sure, Massachusetts is not unique in allowing governors to accept private funding for travel. In New Jersey, former governor Chris Christie formed a business-funded nonprofit to cover his international travel costs, and his successor, Governor Phil Murphy, has been dipping into that fund as well. But just because it happens elsewhere doesn’t mean there’s no need to improve our state’s ethics rules, and lawmakers should think about updating the state’s ethics guidelines to minimize conflicts of interest that could arise from this kind of public-private funding for official government business. After all, it’s the taxpayers who the governor is supposed to answer to when it comes to explaining why her official travels are a necessary expense. So let them foot the bill.
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