Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Who cuts the budget cutters' budget?

This week the Joint Appropriations Committee announced state agencies will be required to reduce their budgets by 5-8%. They also have legislation drafted to cut state employee retirement and eliminate cost of living increases. You might recall how legislators trashed unemployed workers as “lazy” when the legislature rejected 38 million dollars for unemployment benefits.

These are the same “fiscal conservatives” who thought it okay to use your tax dollars to treat 25 of the members of the Wyoming legislature to a vacation meeting at the Sheraton Waikiki Hotel in Honolulu last August.

Several legislators have argued the trip was “important.” I’m sure it was. They all are. It was a meeting of the Council of State Governments and the agenda included such critical topics as “To Tweet or Not to Tweet.” There was an “early bird walk” along the beach every morning and a hospitality room every evening. Of course there were more substantive topics but nothing that would have justified sending such a huge contingent of so-called “citizen legislators” to Hawaii for a week.

The junket cost taxpayers more than $58,000. Only one legislator, State Senator Dan Dockstader (Lincoln, Sublette and Teton Counties), decided the trip was extraordinary enough to pay his own way. The others let you pick up the tab.

Having been a state agency head, I know a double standard when I see one. If a state agency had sent one person, much less a third of its staff to Honolulu, imagine the beating he or she would have taken in front of the Joint Appropriations Committee…and yet there on the beach was the House JAC Chair, Rosie Berger along with former JAC chair John Schiffer, Senate President Jim Anderson and House Speaker Ed Buchannan.

The Hawaiian vacationers who really caught my attention were the ten who thought long-term unemployed Wyoming workers were so lazy they should be denied unemployment benefits. They (and approximately how much you paid for their trip to Hawaii) are Speaker of the House Ed Buchanan ($2300), Kathy Davison ($2302), Gerald Gay ($2700), Elaine Harvey ($2550), Allen Jaggi ($2220), Tom Lockhart ($2525), Robert McKim ($2330), Owen Peterson ($2260), Mark Semlek ($2108), and Matt Teeters ($2303).

Teeters said unemployed workers should be denied taxpayer help because he didn’t want “to create a perverse incentive that would keep people from trying to find a job.” Seems taxpayer funded trips to Hawaii may create a “perverse incentive” to run for the legislature.

The legislature plays an important role in holding state agencies accountable for how they spend your tax dollars. Agency heads know if they permit questionable use of state funds, there will be a day of reckoning. Travel budgets are particularly vulnerable to second-guessing. Members of the legislature don’t hesitate to demand explanations for any expenditure that appears to be unusual or ill advised. It’s called accountability.

But who holds the legislature accountable. Their leaders not only approved the Hawaiian trip, they went with the others to Honolulu. Is the Joint Appropriations Committee going to call them on the carpet? Not likely when the House Appropriations Committee chair was a fellow traveler.

The voters don’t seem interested in holding them accountable either.  Eighteen of the legislators who went to Hawaii ran unopposed in their last general election, as did a large majority of all their colleagues. I guess it’s true. In a democracy the voters get what they deserve. And unaccountable legislators get a free trip to Hawaii.

Having returned sun tanned and rested from Waikiki, they got down to the business of cutting the budgets of others and writing legislation to eviscerate the state retirement program. They want to eliminate cost of living increases, clarify that retirement is not a promise and, get this, fund an “education” program to teach retiree how to be more frugal and live on less. Really! Perhaps frugal retirees can learn they can afford a vacation…but only if they get elected to the legislature?

They get us coming and going which is sort of what is meant by “aloha."


  1. Casper Star Tribune
    Lawmakers' Hawaii trip not out of the ordinary
    BY JEREMY PELZER blog | Posted: Monday, August 29, 2011 3:54 pm

    CHEYENNE--While a few eye brows were raised following news of legislators' taxpayer-funded trip to Hawaii for a conference last month, neither the trip nor the price tag were out of the ordinary, according to the director of the Legislative Service Office.

    Twenty-six Wyoming legislators who attended the annual meeting of the Council of State Governments-West in Honolulu from July 31 to Aug. 2 were reimbursed a total of almost $48,000 for airfare, hotel, meals, registration fees, and other expenses, LSO records show.

    State Sen. Dan Dockstader, R-Afton, also attended, but he paid his own way, according to LSO records. State Rep. Matt Teeters, R-Lingle, also attended but filed no reimbursement requests, the records show.

    Such trips aren't unusual, said LSO Director Dan Pauli. Legislators, he said, are allowed to be reimbursed for up to two trips per year for meetings held by national legislative groups such as CSG-West or the National Conference of State Legislatures.

    Pauli estimated that roughly 15-20 percent of state lawmakers are reimbursed for two trips per year, while another 20 percent are paid back for one trip per year.

    In 2010, state lawmakers were reimbursed a total of $97,389 for out-of-state trips, according to LSO's annual report.

    The cost of sending the legislators to the Hawaii CSG-West conference wasn't unusually high, Pauli said. He estimated that the typical trip costs in the ballpark of $1,200-$2,000 per legislator, depending on the location and the length of the meeting.

    In this case, he said, airfare to Hawaii was higher than to less remote destinations. But the three-day conference was shorter than other meetings, he said, and hotel costs were below what they would be in, say, Washington, D.C.

    More Wyoming legislators attended the Hawaii conference than usually attend such meetings, Pauli said. But every legislator who went, he said, serves on a CSG-West committee, either as a member or as an alternate.

    Here's a full list of the legislators who attended, as well as their full list of reimbursement requests:
    Legislators' 2012 CSG-West expenses

    Salt & Light Perspective

  2. You wouldn't believe the hoops that state employees have to jump through to justify travel. That used to be the case for out-of-state travel but now it applies to in-state business trips as well. Budgets are tight, we are told. We are only too happy to tighten our belts in the knowledge that members of our Legislature our using the savings so wisely.