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A trip to Hawaii might be just what the doctor ordered for a legislator coming off a tiring reelection campaign.

But political watchdogs expressed dismay after a group of lawmakers headed to Maui this week for a conference funded by a public policy institute and attended by lobbyists for special interest groups.

Twenty-two legislators, including Santa Rosa's senator-elect Noreen Evans, were put up at the Fairmont Kea Lani hotel for the event, according to the Sacramento Bee, which first reported the story.

The conference was funded by the California Independent Voter Project, a nonprofit policy group founded by a pair of former state politicians.

The group, which championed the open primary plan that voters passed in June, reportedly paid for accommodations and air travel for many of the legislators.

The conference also attracted powerful political players including the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, PG&E, Southern California Edison and pharmaceutical companies.

Evans, in a phone interview Thursday as she left Hawaii, said discussions included economic development, prison system reform and green energy.

She called her time there a valuable opportunity to hear an array of ideas and to build the kind of bipartisan relationships needed in Sacramento where a culture of perennial crisis makes collaboration difficult.

Coming from the progressive Democrat camp, she was a minority among more conservative voices at the conference, she said. Attendees included leaders from Texas who talked about their state's more pro-business policies.

"The way I try to approach my job is to look at things from all sides, even sides I don't agree with," she said.

Her four nights of accommodations at the hotel — whose listed rates begin around $450 per night — came free, but she paid for her own travel expenses, she said, adding the event received no taxpayer money.

"If someone wants to say I was unduly influenced, I guess they could," she said. "But my voting record speaks for itself."

But others see such trips as troubling junkets designed to influence lawmakers far from where the public can see them just as they are faced with making billions of dollars in cuts to state services because of the ongoing budget crisis.

"Where is the access for the rest of us to talk to legislators while they're discussing these key issues?" said Katie Fleming, a spokeswoman for Common Cause, a non-partisan watchdog group. "They are going to be deciding on issues for these folks at the legislature."

Because California Independent Voter Project is organized as a non-profit, rather than as a lobbying group, it is not required to reveal what groups fund it.

Fleming said such junkets are frequent occurrences, but said the culture of gift-giving in Sacramento should be banned.

"The public's business is being done in expensive restaurants and faraway places," she said.

According to Maplight.org, a non-profit group dedicated to publicizing the role of money in politics, Evans received $3,000 from the pharmaceutical industry, $3,900 from PG&E and $1,000 from Southern California Edison from the beginning of 2007 to mid-way through 2010.

Evans, who was elected to the senate this month after three terms in the Assembly, received no contributions from the Correctional Peace Officers Association.

It wasn't clear who the other legislators in attendance were. The California Independent Voters Project did not return email and telephone messages left Thursday. Its web site lists a San Rafael address. The Bee found rooms at the Fairmont that matched legislator names.

The politicians are due back in Sacramento soon. Last week Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger called a special legislative session for Dec. 6 to deal with a projected $25 billion deficit.

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