State workers travel despite warningIn the weeks after Gov. Jim Doyle’s administration ordered state employees to curb unnecessary travel, those same workers charged the state more than $900,000 for hundreds of trips around the world.
By: By SCOTT BAUER / Associated Press Writer, The ASSOCIATED PRESS
MADISON — In the weeks after Gov. Jim Doyle’s administration ordered state employees to curb unnecessary travel, those same workers charged the state more than $900,000 for hundreds of trips around the world.
Wisconsin state employees visited at least 30 states and the District of Columbia and eight foreign countries in more than 300 trips taken just the first three months of the year, records obtained by The Associated Press show.
Expenses for the trips ranged from a measly $10.83 each for five Department of Transportation workers who attended a forum in Rosemont, Ill., to $12,000 for an Investment Board analyst who made company visits in Tokyo.
The amount spent on travel and the number of places visited actually is much greater than the reports show. The University of Wisconsin System, which last fiscal year accounted for about 89 percent of the out-of-state travel, submitted an incomplete report.
The university showed just $461,000 in travel, but that did not include the entire month of January or any travel directly related to its core mission or growth agenda, said university spokesman David Giroux.
The information was not included due to accounting limitations and because the university was told by Doyle’s administration that it didn’t have to be included, Giroux said.
It’s not known how overall spending on travel so far this year matches up with the same time period in 2007. Department of Administration Secretary Michael Morgan ordered the report for the first time this year.
But the total amount reported appears to be low. For the previous fiscal year, which covered July 1, 2006, through June 30, 2007, out-of-state travel not paid for with federal funds cost the state about $22.1 million, according to the legislative Fiscal Bureau. The majority of that, $19.7 million, was spent by the university.
In addition to the university not submitting all of its expenses, there were other holes in the report reviewed by AP.
Doyle’s administration did not request travel information from a handful of agencies, including the state court system, the Legislature, the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority, or either the governor or lieutenant governor’s office.
Those were not considered state agencies for the purposes of this report, said Department of Administration spokeswoman Linda Barth.
Doyle’s administration isn’t questioning any state agency about any of the travel or asking that expenses be justified. The report was requested just to get a sense of what type of travel was taking place, Barth said Tuesday.
‘‘Each state agency is responsible for the decisions they make on employee travel,’’ she said. ‘‘They’ll continue to make those decisions. ... We feel they’re making the best decisions they can.’’
The amount spent on travel is significant, said John Murray, spokesman for Assembly Speaker Mike Huebsch, R-West Salem.
‘‘We would hope these agencies are very closely scrutinizing this travel to ensure that it is critical to the operation of state government,’’ Murray said.
Sen. Robert Cowles, R-Green Bay, said cutting out travel shouldn’t be hard.
‘‘This is the kind of stuff I call low-hanging fruit. These are the easy cuts, the easy reductions,’’ Cowles said.
Huebsch enacted a ban on out-of-state travel for members of the state Assembly and their staffs effective Feb. 11. There is no ban on travel in the Senate. A preliminary review of records shows that there were at least seven trips approved for senators and their staff members in the first three months of the year where reimbursement from state money was requested. The exact cost of the trips, to a variety of conferences, was not immediately available.
State agencies spent money on trips at the same time that Doyle’s administration, along with legislative leaders, are trying to solve a $527 million budget shortfall.
When it became obvious that the weakening economy was resulting in the state not collecting enough in taxes to cover its expenses, Morgan on Jan. 24 ordered agencies to ‘‘place strict limitations on the use of out-of-state travel.’’
Seeking travel restriction during tight budget times is a popular public relations move but it does little to solve the problem, said Todd Berry, president of the nonpartisan Wisconsin Taxpayers Alliance.
‘‘It’s frustrating that the out-of-state travel will get more political and press and citizen attention than the fact that we have known since January that we have a budget problem and we have done nothing major to address it,’’ he said.
Counting only trips that were paid for out of the state’s pocket, $917,152 was spent on 371 trips between January and March, based on the AP review.
After the university, the agency that spent the most on travel after that was the state Investment Board at $104,775. The board’s executive director defended the travel — which included trips to Madrid, Munich, London, Tokyo and Dublin — as necessary to fulfill the board’s responsibility of managing the state’s investments.
‘‘Travel is typically associated with due-diligence prior to making an investment decision or monitoring investments already made,’’ Investment Board director Keith Bozarth said in the letter to the state budget office.
Travel includes meeting with prospective companies, visiting properties and fund managers and attending company meetings, Bozarth said.