The Legislature sent 13 of its members, along with two staffers, to the Liaoning Province on a taxpayer-funded diplomatic mission aiming to further Utah's only sister-state relationship.
The delegation's ranking members - Senate Majority Leader Curt Bramble and House Majority Leader Dave Clark - today defended the trip against criticism at a meeting of the Executive Appropriations Committee. A more formal report on the trip will come next month.
Some lawmakers, a few lobbyists and news columnists have criticized the trip, the size of the delegation and the vaguely defined goals.
Bramble said they planned to open "lines of communication" in four areas - governmental, cultural, education and economic.
"Business in China begins with developing an approval and a relationship with a government officer," Clark said.
Bramble said Utah's lawmakers met nonstop with government officials from the city to the national level. They also visited a university, a middle school and some businesses.
"This was not a go with your wife to go see the Great Wall and the Forbidden City," he said.
But Utah's delegation did see both tourist sites, though they said they only had a short, insufficient amount of time because of their busy schedule.
"If it was a junket, I don't want to go on them anymore," said Senate Minority Leader Mike Dmitrich. "I would rather play golf."
These legislative leaders touted the trip as a success because of the relationships they created with Liaoning officials. Though Clark said the true measure of the venture won't be taken for some time.
"The value of this mission will be what we do with these relationships from this date on," he said.
Clark also said Utah's lawmakers tried to learn about the form of government in China, which is controlled by the Communist party.
"The state elects who goes to congress, the state Legislature. I thought that was a novel idea," he joked.
Utah's delegation was surprised by the size of the Chinese cities, their manufacturing plants and workforce.
"The scope of things in China was like nothing we were prepared for," Bramble said.
They found one area in particular that Utah and China can strike a deal - mining safety and environmental precautions.
Dmitrich, who is from Price, was Utah's point person on those discussions. He said Chinese officials were interested in how Utah miners deal with methane gas. They also wanted to learn about clean coal burning technology.
"They were almost, I hate to exaggerate, on bended knee asking for help," Clark said.
The diplomatic exchange came in response to visits from Liaoning officials to Utah.
The trip cost Utah taxpayers about $36,000 for flights and some of the hotel bill. Chinese officials subsidized the hotel costs and also paid for in-country transportation, food and entertainment. Bramble estimated that the Chinese government spent about $36,000 as well.