State lawmakers accepted trips to Canada, Taiwan and Croatia last year, lawmakers reported in their annual personal financial disclosure reports.
They said the trips were largely educational in nature.
One lawmaker said the trip to Croatia ultimately resulted in Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson calling on an Arkansas firm and encouraging its further expansion in south Arkansas.
Lawmakers also reported that a lobbyist representing an Arkansas school choice group financed their trip to Washington, D.C., to meet with officials for the Foundation for Excellence in Education -- a group founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in 2008.
They said they learned about what other states are doing to improve education.
House Speaker Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, reported that a California company paid for his trip to San Francisco in October to give a speech on a tax-credit program enacted in 2013 and the prospects for extending it in this year's legislative session.
Under Amendment 94 to the Arkansas Constitution, lobbyists have been barred from providing certain gifts to state lawmakers since Nov. 5.
The State Legislative Leaders Foundation paid $3,941.24 for state Sen. Eddie Joe Williams, R-Cabot, to attend the 2014 Transatlantic Leadership Forum in July, Williams disclosed in his report. The foundation holds a forum overseas once a year.
The forum was called "Croatia: From Independence to the 28th Member of the European Union and NATO -- A Guarantee for a Peaceful Future." It brought together 17 legislative leaders from the United States and 10 American businessmen, according to the Croatian Parliament's website.
The foundation is a nonprofit, nonpartisan group dedicated to the professional development of state Senate and House leaders, according to its website, and Williams serves on its board of directors.
"Trade was obviously a focus [of the trip]," Williams said in an interview last week.
"Croatia is still an emerging country, and they are still damaged [from war]. We met with their legislators, and they have got a huge agriculture industry. Everywhere I go I talk [about] rice, obviously," he said.
Williams, who is the former Senate Republican leader, said he met Illinois Senate President John Cullerton, a Democrat, during his trip to Croatia, and Cullerton told him that he wanted Williams to meet a friend who was interested in doing business in Arkansas.
He said Cullerton's friend was businessman Oscar Cozzini of Chicago. Cozzini is president of RH Preyda Co., which has plants in Glenwood and Royal in Arkansas.
"I spent three days with him here in Arkansas and took him to the Geological Survey and took him to some folks at [the Arkansas Economic Development Commission]," said Williams, who is chairman of the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee.
"Through that relationship, through that organization, he was one of the ones that the governor called his first day in office .... and he has now expanded and continuing to expand," Williams said.
Hutchinson said he called Cozzini at Williams' suggestion in late January, but it wasn't on his first day in office, and he later met with Cozzini in the governor's office.
The governor said it would be great to see Cozzini expand his business operations in Arkansas.
Bob Okita, operations coordinator for RH Preyda, which purchased what is now Hall Sharpening Stones in Glenwood in 2013 and B&C Abrasives in Royal in 2014, said the firms have expanded their total employment from about six to about 18 employees at their production facilities.
Okita said the firms quarry and manufacture stones used to sharpen such things as knives and blades.
"We are looking at expanding to help grow the economy, hire more people and make things better in Glenwood, Arkansas," said Cozzini.
The Canadian Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development paid $2,460.84 for Sen. Bill Sample, R-Hot Springs, to attend the "Rising State Leaders tour" in July in Canada, Sample reported in his annual report.
"It was an educational trip. It was a tough one. You get up in the morning at 3:30 with your bags. We never stayed in the same hotel twice."
Sample said he and seven lawmakers from other states went to several places throughout Canada to learn about economic development and the energy industry in Canada.
"They didn't take us up there for legislative stuff," said Sample, who is chairman of the Senate Transportation Technology and Legislative Affairs Committee. "They took us up there to take and show us their economic development and how it would affect us because most everything they make or send comes to the United States.
"I made a bunch of good friends and acquaintances with the Canadian government. They are highly interested in the Keystone pipeline."
The Leadership Association of Taiwan paid $9,000 for then-Senate President Pro Tempore Michael Lamoureux's expenses from July 12-20 on a government exchange to Taipei, Lamoureux reported. The Russellville Republican is now Hutchinson's chief of staff.
Lamoureux said he and Rep. Kelley Linck, R-Flippin, participated in the trip to Taiwan along with lawmakers from other states and met with various government officials and leaders there.
"It was a cultural exchange," to promote trade and Taiwan's relationship with the United States, said Lamoureux.
Taiwan officials made a pitch for Arkansas to have a trade representative in Taiwan with Taiwan covering most of the cost, like Louisiana has, he said.
"It's something the state might want to look at doing," Lamoureux said, adding that he's going to ask the Arkansas Economic Development Commission to review that possibility.
Linck didn't report a trip to Taiwan on his annual personal financial disclosure report.
He said Friday night that "I totally forgot about that."
Linck said he would amend his report soon to disclose that trip.
Lobbyist Laurie Lee of Little Rock reported that she spent nearly $10,000 on behalf of Arkansas Parents for School Choice on expenses for an August trip to Washington, D.C., for Republican Reps. Bruce Cozart of Hot Springs, Bill Gossage of Ozark and Charlotte Douglas of Alma, and Sens. Jane English of North Little Rock and Bart Hester of Cave Springs. The purpose of the trip was to discuss "education reform."
Cozart, Gossage, English and Hester reported the expenses on their personal financial disclosure reports.
Douglas didn't report the expenses on her disclosure report. She could not be reached for comment by telephone late Friday afternoon.
English is chairman of the Senate Education Committee and Cozart is chairman of the House Education Committee on which Gossage and Douglas serve.
Lee said the five lawmakers met with officials of the Foundation for Excellence in Education.
"It was literally to look at things that work. There was no specific legislation discussed at all," she said.
The Foundation for Excellence in Education works with decision-makers on developing and implementing education policies, according to its website.
"We are a hands-on, how-to organization that provides model legislation, rule-making expertise, implementation strategies and public outreach," the website states.
Lee said she started the private group Arkansas Parents for School Choice a few years ago.
Asked who funds Arkansas Parents for School Choice, Lee said, "I don't think that is relevant. We are a private organization."
Cozart said he learned what other states are doing to improve education during the three-day trip, and "they came to meet with us again" in Arkansas in late November.
"We are just looking at the possibilities of what other states do and whether it would work in Arkansas," such as providing a school-choice option for disabled students, he said.
English said she learned about how other states are improving workforce development during the trip.
"It was a lot of food for thought," she said.
Gillam, who was elected as House speaker in January, reported that Advantage Capital Partners of Napa, Calif., paid $3,690.44 for his food, lodging and travel for his speech at a policy conference in his official capacity as House speaker-designate in October.
He said the group paid for his three-day trip to San Francisco, including two days of travel.
Former House Speaker Robbie Wills, D-Conway, who is now a lobbyist for Advantage Capital Partners, helped arrange the trip, he added.
Gillam said he gave the speech about the state's experience with Act 1474 of 2013, and the prospects for extending the initiative in this year's legislative session because it was his understanding that former Rep. Darrin Williams, D-Little Rock, who proposed what became Act 1474, couldn't attend.
Act 1474 of 2013 is aimed at using tax credits to encourage private businesses to invest in poor communities, according to Williams.
Advantage Capital is a pioneer in utilizing public-private partnerships to raise venture capital and small-business capital for investments and loans in underserved areas, according to its website.
Asked whether the trip would influence any legislation regarding the program, Gillam replied, "Everything is driven by the budget.
"If [extending the program] fits, it fits. If it doesn't, it doesn't. It is a good program, and we have lots and lots of great programs that are thought of each year but they don't always fit in with what we have to do within the budget. At this point, it is in a whole list of other things that everybody would like to see get done, but may not get done," Gillam said.
Two years ago, the state Department of Finance and Administration projected that Act 1474 of 2013 would reduce state general revenue by $19.9 million in fiscal 2016.
An official for the state Economic Development Commission said the state won't know how much the program will cost the state until later next month.
SundayMonday on 03/08/2015