Watchdog

Legislators spend big in Philly

The Kentucky legislature spent more than $135,000 on airfare, hotels, food and other expenses for 63 lawmakers, staffers and state police to attend a conference in Philadelphia in July. That's only a partial number, because not all who attended have filed their expense reports.

After the Herald-Leader requested the travel records, House Speaker Greg Stumbo said he met with Senate President David Williams and the Legislative Research Commission to propose a new policy limiting travel costs.

"We will then implement these changes to travel policy, with the aim of ensuring that legislators reap the full benefit of educational opportunities afforded by seminars and conferences while not wasting taxpayer dollars," Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said in a statement Tuesday.

As of Sept. 1, the LRC reported reimbursing $82,875 in salary and expenses for the Philadelphia trip for 28 lawmakers, plus $49,960 in expenses for 32 legislative staffers and $2,222 in expenses for three Kentucky State Police officers assigned to guard lawmakers.

The group attended the National Conference of State Legislatures' 2009 summit, one of many conferences that Kentucky legislators attend around the country every year, with an agenda that included a mix of educational and social events.

Not all of the travel destinations for legislators are in the United States. Williams, R-Burkesville, for example, has attended more than two dozen conferences on the public dime since 2006, with destinations including Ireland, Turkey and Puerto Rico, as well as Florida, Arizona and New York.

A spokeswoman for Williams said he could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Given the recession and the painful budget cuts being enacted elsewhere in state government, it's amazing that the legislature keeps sending large groups to conferences, said Jim Waters, spokesman for the Bluegrass Institute for Public Policy Solutions, a free-market think tank in Bowling Green.

"In the private sector right now, companies are using teleconferencing, online seminars and other cheap alternatives to flying their employees across the country and putting them in a hotel room for the week," Waters said. "But, of course, what other organization has the luxury of increasing its own spending when revenues are down?"

The legislative budget is not hurting. Last year, while lawmakers told Gov. Steve Beshear to cut $230 million from the executive branch's $9.1 billion budget, they fattened their own budget by 13 percent over the next two years, taking it up to $55.6 million in 2010.

The complete list of lawmakers who went to Philadelphia — and the total cost — remains publicly unknown.

Williams and Stumbo refused in July to identify the attendees. Legislative staff have a 90-day deadline to file their expenses, but no such deadline exists for lawmakers. Some who went to Philadelphia, including Williams and Stumbo, had yet to file as of Sept. 1.

Bob Damron, a Democratic representative from Nicholasville, traveled the most cheaply, at $2,045 for expenses and salary. Legislators are paid a daily salary for such trips. Perry Clark, a Democratic senator from Louisville, charged the most: $3,949. Clark did not return a call seeking comment Tuesday.

In his statement Tuesday, Stumbo said he encouraged lawmakers to attend the NCSL summit in Philadelphia because next year's NCSL summit will be held in Louisville.

"The economic impact of that conference, which will bring in more than 5,000 people from around the country, is expected to top $11 million," Stumbo said. "We have a lot to gain from that event, just as we did in 2006, when Louisville hosted the Southern Legislative Conference."

Taxpayers should call their lawmakers and demand to know exactly what benefit Kentucky sees from frequent out-of-state trips, said Waters of the Bluegrass Institute.

"If Toyota sends an employee to a seminar somewhere, that employee is expected to bring back information that makes a tangible difference to Toyota's operations," Waters said.

"I think it's fair to ask what we're getting from all this legislative-travel spending," he said. "Are they learning something about improving our educational system? Are they learning how to write smarter legislation? Really? Let's see the evidence."

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