Legislature putting a lid on out-of-state trips

Government » Travel budget could drop 70 percent from 2008 levels.
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When the National Conference of State Legislatures held its fall forum in San Diego this month, it was missing much of its usual Utah contingent.

Only a handful of Beehive State lawmakers attended the meeting after they -- like legislators nationwide -- slashed out-of-state travel in the face of widespread budget crises.

"I've probably made some enemies cutting it back this year," says Senate President Michael Waddoups, R-Taylorsville, who has clamped down on legislative travel and is on pace to cut the budget by 70 percent this year from where it was two years ago.

In the House and Senate, new restrictions have been put in place, eliminating travel for first-term legislators. In the Senate, Waddoups has agreed to approve one trip a year for the remaining senators. In the House, Speaker Dave Clark, R-Santa Clara, says he gave members a $1,500 allowance to spend on the travel they see fit, but it typically is enough for one trip.

"It's a management approach," Clark says, "that we're going to tighten our ship as well."

For the 2008 budget year, lawmakers spent $268,153 on out-of-state travel to conferences in Boston; Florida; Washington, D.C., and a leadership conference that senators attended at the lavish El Conquistador Resort, which overlooks the ocean in Puerto Rico.

This year, travel spending is down to $89,547 so far, according to figures obtained through an open-records request.

Although the budget year doesn't end until June, there typically is little travel during the year's first three months, when the Legislature is in session, and rarely much in the months following. In fact, if past trends hold, the total travel spending will likely come in under $100,000.

In 2008, Senate Majority Leader Curtis Bramble, R-Provo, racked up $22,737 in travel expenses alone. This year, the entire Senate -- excluding staffers -- had spent $18,877 on travel through November, putting them on pace to spend less than $21,000 this year.

Bramble says he serves on the governing board for the National Conference of State Legislatures, the American Legislative Exchange Council and an interstate group trying to craft a national agreement governing sales taxes for Internet purchases.

Bramble says the meetings he attends are important to Utah, not a free golf weekend or junket. The online-sales-tax issue alone could mean tens of millions of dollars for the state, he says, noting his involvement in ALEC has helped lure the 3,000-member annual conference to Utah in 2012.

"I view it as my responsibility as a legislator and trying to address something that can be very beneficial to the state," says Bramble, who continues to attend the meetings, paying for the travel out of his Senate campaign account.

He is not the only one dipping into his campaign account to pay for travel. Both Clark and Waddoups say they are using their campaign funds to pay for travel, and others are doing the same.

Waddoups says he has paid to attend legislative gatherings in Florida, Jackson, Wyo.; Berlin and St. Petersburg, Russia.

The rest of state government also appears to be trimming its travel budget. During the past budget year, the expense for out-of-state travel averaged more than $440,000 per month. In the first five months of the current year, the average is down to $316,000.

Meagan Dorsch, a spokeswoman for the National Conference of State Legislatures, says the association has seen attendance at its meetings dip during the year.

"Like every organization out there, I think we got hit as well," she says. A number of states are restricting travel for legislators and legislative staff.

NCSL has turned to staging "webinars" (online conferences) to help continue its mission of sharing ideas among legislators, Clark says. "The crisis has led to a bit of necessity, so we've looked for better, more efficient ways to do these."

Both he and Waddoups believe the trips are worthwhile and expect to see travel pick up again when the economy recovers.

"There's a lot of things that we miss there. We come up with a better understanding of uniform laws and model legislation for various issues," Waddoups says. "We get a lot of information on what's going on in other states, but more important than that, I think, are the relationships that get developed."


Legislative salaries down, too

Utah legislators are paid $117 per day they are in session or attending meetings, but that figure reflects a $13 pay cut they gave themselves during the past legislative session.

The Legislative Compensation Commission recommended earlier this month that lawmakers restore the cuts, but there appears to be little appetite to do so.

In addition to the salary, lawmakers receive $61 per day for meals, $106 per night for lodging expenses, whether they eat the meals or stay in a hotel. They are also compensated at the federal rate of 50.5 cents per mile for travel to and from the Capitol.

As a result, the average legislator gets paid for 69 days during the course of the year and receives $8,741 in salary, plus $6,656 in benefits, for a total average compensation of $15,397.

The commission's report said Utah legislators ranked 33rd in their daily salary