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Mooneyham column: Trade trip … or a junket?

By Scott Mooneyham
Capitol Press Association
RALEIGH ó Not that long ago, most politicians ó unless they were traveling to war zones or flew on a jet called Air Force One ó didn’t take “trips” to foreign countries.
They took “junkets.”
The word carries an unsavory connotation, that a trip on official business was really just an excuse for a vacation at taxpayer expense. And journalists once loved to put the label on high-flying trips by the elected.
But lately, we journalists have curbed our use the word. It does, after all, stray from straight-up news reporting.
Except in a few editorials and on blogs, the word didn’t show up much in the coverage of Gov. Mike Easley’s recent jaunt across the Atlantic to Italy.
Fourteen people made the nine-day trip in April, including Easley’s wife, Mary; state Commerce Secretary Jim Fain; and the governor’s communications director, Sherri Johnson. The trip’s cost totaled $170,000. The tab included $52,000 for a chauffeured Mercedes van.
The official business on the trip involved pitching North Carolina as a destination for Italian investment and Italian travelers. Afterward, Fain pointed to several contacts that could lead to business investment here. A couple of news stories in Italian publications promoting North Carolina as a tourist destination were also cited as success.
Still, judging from letters to the editor and responses on blogs, a lot of North Carolinians weren’t pleased to read about how their tax dollars were being spent. If reporters have become cautious about pegging this kind of thing a junket, readers of their stories are not.
The important issue, though, isn’t really how much Easley and his entourage spent. The important issue is whether taxpayers got something of value out of the expenditure.
Was the trip a reasonable, worthwhile effort to lure investment from a significant trading and investment partner, or was it a convenient excuse for a free vacation?
Aside from waiting on future pronouncements from the Commerce Department, a few indicators may help with the question.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 6 percent of all North Carolina workers are employed by U.S. affiliates of foreign-owned companies. Manufacturing jobs that support exports to other countries account for another 5.4 percent of jobs here.
But those jobs involve all foreign countries. What about Italy as a significant investment partner?
According to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Italy ranks 10th when it comes to foreign directed investment in the United States, with about $6.1 billion in 2007. The number represents only about 3 percent of foreign directed investment in the U.S. On the other hand, Italy’s investments grew by more than a third last year.
The weak dollar should also make the United States, including North Carolina, a prime tourist destination for European travelers this summer.
So, junket or legitimate trip? You make the call.
One more interesting fact: Switzerland-owned firms currently invest in the U.S. at nearly four times the rate of Italian firms.
And by all accounts, governor, Switzerland is just lovely this time of year.
– – –
Scott Mooneyham is a columnist for Capitol Press Association.

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