BISMARCK — North Dakota's public employees don't let the geographic isolation of the Peace Garden State keep them from attending conferences and conducting research all over the world.
State agencies, public universities and school districts rely on purchasing cards to send their staffers everywhere from Fargo to France.
P-cards, as they're commonly called, act almost as company credit cards for government entities. They allow public employees to pay for everything from plane tickets to office supplies without checks or reimbursements. In 2018, the 180 enrolled public entities spent a combined total of more than $123 million using p-cards. A previous Forum News Service article introduced the state's p-card program and explained how it benefits enrolled entities.
Paying for travel-related expenses is one of the most common uses for p-cards across all enrolled entities.
While there is no exact figure for the amount spent by public employees on travel-related costs, Forum News Service’s analysis of transaction data found at least $44.3 million spent on airfare, train tickets, lodging, car rentals and travel agency services using purchasing cards since the beginning 2016. This figure does not include the price of fuel, which is often reimbursed separately, or most food costs, for which employees are given a daily allowance. Nor does it include the cost of registering for conferences, which often exceed $500 per attendee.
The state's two largest universities far outspent other public entities on travel-related costs, accounting for nearly 45% of the total amount. North Dakota State University and the University of North Dakota topped the list in overall p-card spending.
Viva Las Vegas
While international travel is not exactly rare, the vast majority of employees never leave the country on the public's dime. A significant portion of travel expenses are paid out within the state, where purchases made on the cards are sales-tax exempt.
For out-of-state air travel, public entities flew Delta more than any other airline by a wide margin. Public entities paid the Atlanta-based airline nearly $11.3 million on p-cards over the last four years.
Public employees frequently end up in the Twin Cities or Chicago for conferences, but transaction records reveal that Las Vegas is one of the most popular out-of-state destinations.
North Dakota's public entities spent at least $72,500 on hotel rooms at 16 Vegas institutions since the beginning of 2016. Caesars Palace topped the list, followed by Flamingo, The Venetian and MGM Grand.
Rooms at the famous hotels range from $125 to $300 per night, but the average lies around $200. Most receipts for rooms at the luxurious hotels included a mandatory, built-in resort fee at a cost of $20 to $35 per day.
Bismarck Public Schools were the state's top spender on Vegas accommodations over the last four years at $7,700, but Bismarck State College followed closely behind. The state's Information Technology Department, the Bank of North Dakota and UND rounded out the top five.
The Nevada city is one of the world's premier conference destinations, welcoming 6.6 million business travelers in 2019, according to the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority. The city's traveler-minded infrastructure makes it well-suited to host hundreds of conferences and trade shows every year. Vegas boasts more than 12 million square feet in meeting space and about 150,000 hotel rooms, according to the visitors authority.
In addition to its infrastructural edge over most other cities, Las Vegas has natural advantages that likely attract conference organizers, said Jeff Larshus, the Office of Management and Budget's director of state financial services.
"Warmth probably plays into it. You're not going to go to Minneapolis in January... but the employees don't pick the location of [the conferences]," Larshus said. "If it's in Kansas City, you go to Kansas City."
Public employees are not any gambling on their visits to Sin City — at least not with taxpayer money. Purchases unrelated to the explicit reason for traveling are strictly forbidden to the point that a $4 bottle of Pepsi at a hotel-room minibar had to be paid back to the Dickinson State University out of the traveling employee's pocket.
North Dakota's public universities and colleges also spend on an entirely different kind of travel expense: sending athletics teams across the country to compete.
UND and NDSU, in particular, rack up big bills quickly when dispatching their football, track and field, hockey and basketball teams to square off in tournaments or face far-away rivals. In addition to transportation costs, university's often feed their hungry student-athletes using p-cards.
On a 2017 trip to Youngstown, Ohio, the then-undefeated Bison football team scratched out an overtime win against Youngstown State. They celebrated the victory with $1500 worth of barbecued chicken, brisket, pulled pork, cheesy potatoes and baked beans from local smokehouse Barry Dyngles.
Documentation of the meal also includes the team's rooming list, which shows that then-head coach Chris Klieman stayed in a suite, while the rest of the coaching staff, including then-defensive coordinator and current head coach Matt Entz, landed king beds. Star quarterback Easton Stick, who would go on to the National Football League, roomed with his backup, Cole Davis.
Another receipt shows the team dinner eaten by UND men's basketball players days before the start of the 2017 NCAA tournament. Two players or team personnel opted for the "PAC 12 burger," prepared medium-well at Legends Pub and Grill in Salt Lake City.
Two days later, the 15-seeded Fighting Hawks went down to the 2-seeded Arizona Wildcats, the PAC 12 Conference's co-champion that year. It's unclear from the documents whether the burgers served as a bad omen.
Note: The 2019 dataset does not include a complete listing of expenditures from North Dakota's institutions of higher education.