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Ending benefits from traveling on the taxpayer dime

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Former Oklahoma Attorney General Jan Eric Cartwright once took two of his employees on a taxpayer-funded trip to Louisiana for a meeting between the attorney generals from other energy-producing states to discuss matters threatening the energy sector.

State Represenstative Jason Murphey

State Represenstative Jason Murphey

The two employees benefitted from going on this trip because they received travel vouchers from the airline which allowed them to receive a reduced price on their next ticket. However, they made the mistake of discussing their plans for using the vouchers for their own personal travel in front of Cartwright. Cartwright admonished his employees by stating, “Oh, no you’re not. The state paid for your ticket. Someone else who has to travel on state business can use it.”

Unfortunately, I do not think all government agency heads appear to have been as successful at deterring this type of activity.

In 2010 a concerned constituent brought it to my attention that government employees were potentially taking advantage of a variation of this concept by charging government travel to their credits cards, getting reimbursed for the travel and keeping the associated travel miles or other rewards.

This incentivized government employees to travel on the taxpayer dime as they would personally benefit for finding reasons to travel.

The potential for abuse became even more clear to me after working with state purchasing officials on a plan to modernize the way state government pays for travel. The officials had identified needed changes in the law to realize savings from travel contracts in much the same way we have incurred millions of savings for other commodities and services through our other purchasing reforms.

As one purchasing official excitedly described the proposal he said, “We have a lot of travel!” This left me feeling a bit conflicted. I was eager to help and incredibly appreciative to the state officials who diligently sourced the savings opportunity by locating a commodity for which the state was spending so much money. But, it was disconcerting to realize how often state government officials are traveling on the taxpayer dime.

A quick check of the state’s purchase card records reflect the heavy usage. In the 2014 fiscal year, the state purchase card was in excess of 20,000 times for air travel and more than 17,000 times for room charges. Approximately 150 of the purchases were placed with Hotel/Casino co-locates including an impressive array of recognizable Las Vegas establishments.

In 2011, I sponsored legislation to end the practice of government officials receiving a personal benefit from taxpayer-funded travel. After navigating through the opposition, the legislation passed by an 86-10 vote. You may see the debate at http://hd31.org/654.

This new policy makes it a best practice for the travel to be placed on the state purchase card instead of personal credit cards.

This has two benefits. First, because the state purchase card is used, it becomes possible to track the amount of and nature of the travel spend. The numbers I have written about in this article would not have been as easily retrieved without the clarity and standardization provided by our state purchasing card vendor. This allows us to demonstrate the need for future reforms which diminish the amount of taxpayer-funded travel.

Second, the taxpayers receive the benefit because a purchase card rebate goes back to the state instead of frequent flier miles going to the government official. Deprived of personal benefit, the government official isn’t as likely to engage in superfluous travel.

Not all state government officials have had the integrity of Attorney General Cartwright, but an ongoing array of state policy reforms, such as the one described herein, will eventually start to turn the tide against overspend on government travel.

Thank you for reading this article. Your interest and input are much appreciated. Please do not hesitate to email Jason.Murphey@hd31.org with your thoughts and suggestions.

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