The Kentucky legislature spent about $2.4 million on out-of-state travel over the last three years, sending lawmakers, aides and state police escorts around the globe, according to a Herald-Leader review of spending data.
Senate President David Williams and House Speaker Greg Stumbo last week said that educational conferences and fact-finding trips are essential for lawmakers tackling Kentucky's problems.
"There are a lot of benefits as far as broadening the minds of our legislators," said Williams, R-Burkesville, who spent 101 days outside the state over the past three years on trips that cost taxpayers $42,351. "I think it's very valuable."
Still, Williams and Stumbo said they agreed with critics who want the legislature to be thriftier. For the first time, they are drafting a formal travel policy that could limit how many trips lawmakers take, for how long, to which events and for what purposes.
"You have some people who push the limits," said Williams, who outspent all but two lawmakers on out-of-state travel to destinations such as Ireland, Turkey and Bonita Springs, Fla.
He said some legislators like to stretch their trips out, which extends the number of days they get paid.
"The guidelines say you get paid a per diem on your travel days," he said. "Let's say there's an opening reception on a Tuesday. They'll want to travel in on Monday and get paid for the day before the conference starts and then go to a reception the next day. That's the sort of stuff that hopefully is going to be addressed."
The move to change legislative travel policies came as the Herald-Leader reported last week that the General Assembly spent more than $135,000 in July sending 63 lawmakers, staffers and state police to a National Conference of State Legislatures meeting in Philadelphia. That total is expected to grow dramatically in coming weeks as dozens more lawmakers and staffers file expense reports.
Williams and Stumbo approve the travel costs for their respective chambers. Lawmakers outside of leadership get a daily salary of about $186 while on state business, plus reimbursements for airfare, hotel, food and other expenses.
About half of the $2.4 million in out-of-state travel expenses since July 1, 2006, was incurred by 117 of the 138 lawmakers. Employees of the Legislative Research Commission — the bureaucracy that serves the legislature — accounted for most of the remaining costs, although because the staffers' expenses are listed separately and by calendar year, they were incurred from January 2006 to present. The LRC employs 439 full- and part-time workers.
Lawmakers took 742 trips with an average cost of $1,697.45, including $755.38 in salary payments and $942.06 for travel expenses. Seventeen lawmakers were paid more than $20,000 each for all of their out-of-state trips, and LRC data shows no such expenses for more than 20 legislators.
Stumbo said lawmakers will appreciate having clear guidelines and rules in the future. LRC data for the previous three fiscal years shows no out-of-state travel charges for Stumbo, who was attorney general through 2007, although his office last week said Stumbo is charging $4,381 for trips to Philadelphia and Winston-Salem, N.C., since the new fiscal year began July 1.
"Legislators have been trusted to conduct their travels responsibly," Stumbo said. "There may be a variety of mitigating factors unknown to me that explains why one legislator's travel reimbursement is different from someone else's."
Travel records show that many events attended by lawmakers are sponsored by nonpartisan educational groups, such as the National Conference of State Legislatures, which studies issues affecting the 50 states and hosts meetings for legislators to discuss their different approaches.
Williams said he brings borrowed ideas back to Kentucky from these conferences. He cited the example of a public authority that could use tolls to fund bridge mega-projects over the Ohio River, something proposed in this summer's legislative session.
But legislators also travel on the taxpayer's dime to like-minded ideological gatherings.
Groups that draw Kentucky lawmakers include Catholics for Choice — liberal Catholics who oppose the Vatican on controversial issues such as abortion and birth control — and conservative organizations promoting pro-business legislation, such as the Heartland Institute and the American Legislative Exchange Council.
The legislature's new travel policy should establish which "primary groups" are educational and a proper use of funds and which "ancillary groups" might require more explanation before approval is given, Williams said.
"I approved a travel voucher the other day for Robin Webb, our newest senator, to attend a women's legislators forum that I normally would not have approved per diem and expenses for," Williams said. "But she informed me that the (House) speaker had already approved that when she was in the House, and she had already made arrangements."
Webb did not return a call seeking comment.
The top two spenders were Democratic Rep. Bob Damron and Republican Sen. Tom Buford, both of Nicholasville, at $45,482 and $43,477, respectively.
Damron made 27 trips to destinations ranging from Seattle to Puerto Rico. More than 20 of those trips were to events held by the Lexington-based Council of State Governments and the National Conference of Insurance Legislators. Damron said he holds key positions in both organizations that require him to attend their meetings.
"You've got to really follow each of these guys and see who's working and attending their meetings before you can make a judgment call," Damron said. "If you look at what I'm doing, you can tell that I'm actually working at these conventions."
Buford, who did not return calls seeking comment, made 29 trips to destinations including San Francisco, New Orleans, Hilton Head, S.C., and Duck Key, Fla. On eleven of his trips, Buford attended events held by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative group that promotes limited government, free markets and federalism.
Another top spender, with $33,738 in travel costs, was Richard Roeding of Fort Mitchell.
Although Roeding, a Republican, retired from the Senate last year, he made trips in the final months of his term to Chicago for a meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council, to New Orleans for the National Conference of State Legislatures conference and to Oklahoma City for a meeting of the Southern Legislative Conference.
Those trips, which came after the legislature adjourned and he cast his final Senate vote, cost a total of $8,712.
Last week, Roeding said that as long as he legally remained a senator, he had an obligation to his district to continue attending conferences and educating himself about public issues.
"I always thought it was worthwhile," Roeding said. "Kentucky is not an island, you know. We have to go and see what the other states are doing about the same issues that we're facing."
At the other end of the spectrum, some lawmakers choose not to travel outside Kentucky at taxpayer expense more than once every few years. In interviews, they said their full-time jobs and families might not allow them time to travel or they simply prefer their own communities when they are not in Frankfort.
"I represent Barren County so, for me personally, I try to concentrate on what's going on in my little piece of the state," said Rep. Johnny Bell, D-Glasgow, whose travel history consists of one trip to New York in 2008 for the National Conference of Insurance Legislators. The cost to taxpayers — $1,654 in salary and expenses — was reduced because Bell paid for his own airfare, he said.
"I'm not going to criticize anyone who travels," Bell said. "But these are the people who elected me. Really, it takes most of my time just to get around my district and meet with constituents and see what they need. I don't have the time to fly to other places."