Public funds politicians' fun

Public funds politicians' fun

August 15th, 2012 in Opinion Free Press

Bill Harmon

Bill Harmon

Go anywhere fun last week? Probably not. If you were lucky, maybe you got in a few final days of vacation before the kids went back to school.

You probably didn't go on an all-expenses paid trip to Chicago and stay at an upscale $200 a night Hilton on the Magnificent Mile. Or down a few free drinks at an exclusive cocktail reception at the Museum of Science and Industry. Or chow down on deep dish pizzas on a food tour of the Windy City. Or take in a White Sox game at no charge.

Unless you are a state legislator, that is.

And if you are a state legislator, then you got to go on that posh little getaway last week at the expense of taxpayers.

Elected officials from across the nation converged on Chicago last week for the National Conference of State Legislatures' annual summit. NCSL is a professional association for state lawmakers known for hosting junkets like the annual summit where legislators share policy ideas, are wined and dined by lobbyists and generally goof off -- largely at taxpayer expense.

TNReport, a Tennessee government-focused news website, uncovered that 27 Tennessee lawmakers attended the NCSL summit. As a result, state taxpayers will shell out approximately $65,000 to pick up the tab for Tennessee legislators' Chicago extravaganza.

Since the summit is ostensibly intended to teach sitting state lawmakers about policy issues, it would make sense that taxpayers would only pay for people who will actually be in the Tennessee General Assembly when they begin legislative session in January to go on the trip. But since when did state leaders care about what makes sense?

Six of the 27 lawmakers that taxpayers sent to Chicago either lost their primaries or retired before the junket took place. But they went anyway.

That list includes Rep. Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, and Rep. Jeanne Richardson, D-Memphis, who lost their primaries, as well as Sen. Mike Faulk, R-Church Hill; Sen. Roy Herron, D-Dresden; former House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington; and Southeast Tennessee lawmaker Rep. Bill Harmon, a Democrat from Dunlap.

Harmon, who decided to retire after redistricting rather than face a tough reelection battle, was apparently all too happy to enjoy one last hoorah as a state legislator on state taxpayers' dime.

Other Chattanooga-area state lawmakers flying to Chicago, staying in posh hotels and eating fancy meals courtesy of taxpayers were Rep. Vince Dean, R-East Ridge, and Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, according to the TNReport story.

The only thing worse for taxpayers than sending a plane full of lawmakers to attend the NCSL summit is paying to host the event, which Tennessee did back in 2006. Then-Governor Phil Bredesen appropriated more than $1.4 million to subsidize the NCSL summit when it was held at Nashville's Opryland Hotel, according to Citizens Against Government Waste.

Why was throwing a party so expensive? Because the event displayed about as much restraint as Charlie Sheen at the Playboy Mansion. Tennessee taxpayers paid for 6,000 attendees, including more than 1,000 legislators and over 2,000 lobbyists, to go on backstage tours of the Grand Ole Opry, have lunch at the Wildhorse Saloon, enjoy a little sightseeing on Music Row, take an escorted visit to Andrew Jackson's home, have video game contests and go ice skating.

To top it off, taxpayers paid to rent out the Country Music Hall of Fame and fill the block of downtown Nashville adjacent to the hall of fame with carnival games and rides, fair-style fried food on a stick, cotton candy, circus performers and an open bar.

There may be some legitimate value in state lawmakers attending NCSL summits and other similar junkets. For example, the trips allow them to share legislative ideas across state and party lines. In reality, however, much more emphasis is placed on partying than policy at events like these.

If politicians want to spend their own money to attend NCSL summits, wonderful. If they want to use money from their campaign coffers, be out guests. But it is simply inappropriate for state lawmakers to force taxpayers -- many of whom can't afford to take their own families on vacation -- to fund their swanky getaways.