HB 1284: Now With 4% More Travel-Related Ethics!

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Where we're going, we don't need roads!

HB 1284 — the “Ethics Bill” — passed the House Rules Committee without objection yesterday. Just to recap, this bill would (1) require that legislators use the cheapest means of travel and (2) that legislators elected after this bill’s effective date wait one year before becoming lobbyists after leaving the legislature. Jason Tolbert has covered some of the issues around the “cooling off period” half of the bill, but what about the mileage reimbursement thing? That’s a good measure, right?

Well, it’s “good” in the same way that having some first aid experience is “good” when you get your arm torn off by a grizzly bear. Sure, you could probably figure out a way to rig a tourniquet and stop the bleeding, but you’ve got to fight that bear with one arm now. Which is to say, the reimbursement measure is kind of helpful, but it doesn’t address the bigger problem.

That portion of the bill reads, in pertinent part:

(b)(1) A member of the General Assembly may travel to a national or regional conference by commercial airplane, private vehicle, or other approved method of transportation.
(b)(2)(A) Reimbursement for out-of-state travel is the lesser rate 6 of reasonable airfare or the established rate of private car mileage based on map mileage when driven.

During the 2009-2010 period, the House alone reimbursed over $70,000 in travel expenses for legislators attending regional and national conferences. (I don’t have the Senate numbers in front of me at the moment.)  Had this rule been in place during that session, it would have affected a total of nine trips, to wit:

  • Bill Abernathy drove from Mena, AR, to Louisville, KY, in July 2010, for which he was reimbursed mileage of $657.73. Had he driven to Little Rock ($155 round-trip reimbursement) and flown to Louisville (Delta has a published rate today for the same July time period for $300 incl. fees), that would have made a difference of $202.73.
  • David Cook drove from Williford, AR, to Philadelphia, PA, in July 2009, for which he was reimbursed mileage of $1,195.58. Had he driven to Little Rock ($140 round-trip) and flown to Philadelphia (average flight cost for others attending that conference was $400), that would have made a difference of $655.58.
  • Uvalde Lindsey made the same trip as David Cook to Philadelphia, and he was reimbursed $1,334.76 for mileage from Fayetteville. Had he flown from Fayetteville to Philadelphia (we’ll call it $400, though Continental has one for that same time period in 2011 for $362), that would have made a difference of $934.76.
  • Rep. Lindsey also made the same trip to Louisville as did Rep. Abernathy, for which Lindsey was reimbursed $637.22. Had he flown to Louisville, the cost difference would have been roughly $337.22.
  • Robert Moore also made the Louisville trip, receiving $576.56 for his drive from Arkansas City. Had he driven to Litle Rock ($120 round-trip) and flown with Rep. Abernathy ($300), the difference would have been $156.56.
  • Tiffany Rogers also traveled to Louisville in July 2010, and she was reimbursed $494.20 for her drive from Stuttgart, AR. Traveling to Little Rock ($60 round-trip) and flying ($300) would have saved Arkansas $134.20.
  • Garry Smith likewise went to Louisville. He was reimbursed $605.97 for the drive from Camden. Had he stopped in Little Rock ($110 round-trip) and flown the rest of the way ($300), he would have saved $195.97.
  • Randy Stewart also made the drive to Louisville, and he received $609.72 for his drive from Kirby, AR. Including a drive to Little Rock ($100 round-trip), flying to Louisville would have cost $209.72 less.
  • Charolette Wagner drove to Atlanta, GA, from Manila, AR, in July 2009, and she was reimbursed $490.71. Had she flown out of Memphis ($70 round-trip), her ticket would have run about $275 on Delta, for a savings of $145.71.

All told, flights on these trips would have saved Arkansans roughly $2975, or approximately 4% of the costs for these out-of-state trips.

Therein lies the problem with this provision of HB 1284: it sounds good, but it accomplishes almost nothing because nearly every legislator was already doing what this rule would require. More importantly, this bill does nothing to hold down reimbursement costs by capping other expenditures.

Case in point, on the trip to Philadelphia in July 2009, plane tickets ranged from $278.41 (Randy Stewart) to $478.40 (John Burris, who also added another $40 in fees for extra baggage), despite the fact that both men flew out of Little Rock. Hotel expenses in Philadelphia ran from $800.65 (Jonathan Barnett; 5 nights at $160.13) to $1444.62 (Joan Cash and Tiffany Rogers; 6 nights at $240.77), and single-night hotel prices ran from Barnett’s $160.13/night to John Burris’ $263.81/night. This bill does nothing to reign in these kinds of costs.

Worse, I fear that this measure will somehow be “proof” that the people in charge of such things have “taken steps to reduce wasteful spending.”  Baby steps are well and good, but only if they lead to bigger strides in the future.  Until I hear someone talking about capping all travel-related expenses for these conferences, I won’t hold my breath.