China trip costs taxpayers thousands

May 3, 2011 3:23:03 PM PDT
A state envoy from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture went to China on a trade mission two months ago, which ended up costing taxpayers thousands of dollars.

On March 16, Agricultural Commissioner Steve Troxler and six others from his department flew to Beijing to bring in business for North Carolina farmers.

The total cost of trip totaled more than $25,000.

"I think it was a very worthwhile trip," Troxler said. "I think we were very frugal with the money that we spent and I think that the numbers will bear that out."

The trip cost taxpayers $12,666 for five plane tickets, meals and hotels for seven people.

However, it cost Troxler and his second in command, Zane Hedgecock, much more to get to China. Their two tickets - paid for with airline credits - cost more than the rest of the trip combined -- $13,000.

"To tell you the truth, I flew business class and I'm allowed to under the state budget manual," Troxler said.

Troxler says he and Hedgecock flew business class because they're both tall and they both have back problems.

In Troxler's case, a life of farming, he says, has led to two spinal surgeries and sitting through long flights can be hard to stand.

"He's 6’2”, I'm 6’3”, and if you're going to sit still in an upright position for 13-14 hours, it's torture," Troxler said.

Nevertheless, some question the extra expense, especially now.

"The perception is, I think, a problem in this case," said Chris Fitzsimon with the left-leaning NC Policy Watch.

Fitzsimon says with a $2.5 billion budget shortfall, any extra spending raises questions.

"This is an example of the things that people don't understand, when they're literally going to be firing teachers assistants and cutting mental health services, that we have that many people going spending that much money," Fitzsimon said.

Troxler says he would rather have stayed home, but had to go.

"When I go, not myself, but when the position goes, it opens a lot of doors that might not be opened otherwise," he said.

And NC State Professor of International Affairs, Rick Kerney agrees.

"I think if the second or third level people went in Troxler's place that they would get meetings with their equivalents in China and there'd be a lower likelihood of a deal getting done," Kerney said.

So far, no deals have come out from the trip, but Troxler says a major cottonseed purchase is in the works. And despite the fact Troxler has been among the most vocal critics of budget cuts, claiming his department has no money to spare, he's unapologetic about spending two to three times more on his ticket than on others.

"If I make another trade mission on a long flight like this, I'll fly business again," Troxler said.

He also says even though no direct business has come from this trip yet, a similar trip two years ago helped the state double its agricultural trade with China -- now around $600 million a year.

More than 30 people went on the trip, including Troxler's wife. The rest - lobbyists and people in agriculture - all paid their own way.

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