Cooper: Legislators flying high (on hog)

Cooper: Legislators flying high (on hog)

September 16th, 2017 by Clint Cooper in Opinion Free Press

It's not too much for taxpayers to expect their lawmakers whenever possible to make the least costly arrangements when they know well in advance they have to fly anywhere.

The 720 out-of-state trips taken by Tennessee state legislators since 2009 have cost taxpayers $1.2 million, according to a review by USA Today Network-Tennessee.

That cost has included numerous flights in which an early booking could have saved hundreds of dollars. Depending on the situation, it's not always possible to book early. But in many situations it is, and the elected officials all have administrative assistants who could make the arrangements if they can't make them themselves.

Four Memphis area lawmakers, for instance, paid $800 apiece for Memphis-to-Los Angeles flights in 2015 when a similar flight at the same time this year could be taken for as little as $380. Other legislators who went on the same trip paid fares ranging from $397 to $629.

Another trip by a Memphis legislator, this one in 2013 to Atlanta, cost $827. A random Memphis-to-Atlanta flight for early next month, booked more than two weeks in advance, is as little as $216.

Lawmakers are limited to standard hotel rooms and commercial air flights when they travel, as they should be, but are not required to fly on days of the week when travel might be less expensive or book flights earlier when they would cost less.

They are also generously compensated for expenses the day before an event such as a conference begins and the day after one ends, and that increases the number of flights they can take and the chances for a less expensive rate.

The USA Today Network-Tennessee review also noted that one legislator was reimbursed $1,000 two years after attending a conference. Sound businesses do not — and should not — allow such tardiness in record-keeping. It not only shows a lapse on the part of the politician but fouls the state record books.

It would be prudent for the state to adopt rules requiring travel to be booked well ahead of time, when possible, and to require lawmakers to reimburse the state for any amount the state has to pay beyond what an earlier-booked flight would have cost. Similarly, lawmakers should have firm deadlines for seeking the reimbursement of expenses. After the deadline passes, no reimbursement should be given.

We don't believe legislators need to be nickel and dimed to death where travel is concerned, and as long as their travel is in keeping with state rules and regulations, but taxpayers deserve to have their elected leaders watching their collective wallet.

After all, to paraphrase former President Dwight Eisenhower, "As quickly as you start spending [state] money in large amounts, it looks like free money."

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