SALT LAKE CITY — What can governors do to avoid having their trade missions to foreign countries seen as just free trips at the public's expense?
That's the question Gov. Gary Herbert posed to his fellow governors attending a National Governors Association panel discussion Saturday on international trade and investment.
"I know there is some controversy with trade missions," Herbert, chairman of the NGA's economic development and commerce committee, said, asking governors what they do "to dispel criticism that you're just taking taxpayer-sponsored junkets?"
Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who has traveled to Japan alone during his multiple terms in office, said he hasn’t heard many complaints about his travel.
Branstad, who served as Iowa's governor from 1983 through 1999 before running successfully again in 2010, described one brief trip over a Thanksgiving weekend where he spent most of his time standing in a Tokyo supermarket to promote the state's beef.
"You can honestly say to your taxpayers, 'We're working hard for you,' " Branstad said. "The results, especially when you do it again and again, pay off in the long term."
Panelist Lew Cramer, head of the Utah World Trade Center, told the governors that creating personal ties over time with foreign governments is key to attracting business.
"People come where they have relationships," Cramer said. "You can't just have a 'drive-by shooting' relationship with people when you're talking with them about investing a lot of money in your state."
But North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple said he disagreed that repeat trips are necessary. "I've not found we needed lots of groundwork," Dalrymple said. If governors do their research ahead of time, he said, there's no reason deals can't be signed right away.
Herbert, who led a five-day trade mission to China in April, said after the meeting he hasn't been personally criticized for traveling but is aware that taxpayers are watching.
"I know that when I went to China, I was very sensitive about it. I wanted to make sure people knew it wasn't a vacation," Herbert said. "It was hard, hard work."
Derek Miller, Herbert's chief of staff, said the governor made that clear to everyone on the trip that included stops in Beijing and Shanghai. "His message to the staff was, 'This is a working trip.' "
Herbert said during the panel discussion, which was carried live on C-SPAN, that the China trade mission has already generated as much as $60 million in investments in Utah.
The NGA's meeting will continue through Sunday. It's the first to include four Chinese provincial leaders, here as a result of trade missions by Herbert and his predecessor, Jon Huntsman Jr., who stepped down as governor in 2009 to become U.S. ambassador to China.