OUR OPINION: Travel records mean little in isolation
Legislators' travel always makes a tempting target, so much so that it's a favorite issue for challengers to raise in election campaigns. But it's also one of the hardest issues for taxpayers to fairly evaluate. That's especially true when the st...
Legislators' travel always makes a tempting target, so much so that it's a favorite issue for challengers to raise in election campaigns.
But it's also one of the hardest issues for taxpayers to fairly evaluate. That's especially true when the state's own records are misleading, as a correction on today's front page suggests.
The story reported the amount of money North Dakota lawmakers spent "to go on dozens of out-of-state trips, including jaunts to California, China and Europe, since the Legislature adjourned 13 months ago." The correction notes that the story, "relying on data provided to the state," overstated some spending, notably the amounts incurred by Rep. Ken Svedjan, R-Grand Forks.
Here are a few conclusions drawn from experience with these stories over the years:
First, the raw numbers for travel expenses mean very little in isolation. So a legislator spent $20,000 on travel in 2008 and 2009: What does that mean?
For the travel may have been justified. As North Dakota lawmakers note, many of them serve in leadership positions with the National Conference of State Legislatures or other groups. Business travel is expected in such cases, as it is the case in professional organizations in corporate life.
Most North Dakotans seem to accept that fact.
Then again, the travel expenses may have been extravagant. Or even criminal, if the lawmaker (or business executive or anyone else) filed deliberately fraudulent expense reports.
How are taxpayers to know?
In North Dakota, the only way is for the state's travel and expense-account system to incorporate strict safeguards, and for the media to periodically check.
First, those safeguards should include formal guidelines for state-sponsored travel. What expenses are authorized? What are the rules for driving vs. flying? Who -- if anyone -- is entitled to travel or stay first class?
Second, the safeguards should make sure that travel plans get carefully screened in advance. In other words, before the first hotel or plane reservation is made, someone in authority should sign off on a lawmakers' itinerary.
Third, once the travel has been completed, auditors should evaluate the expense reports and compare them with state rules. And fourth, all of the above is subject to checking by the news media, up to and including investigative reports such as the Twin Cities' KSTP-TV station has conducted on Minnesota lawmakers' travel.
Are the state's safeguards in place? Who approves lawmakers' travel, and what standards are used? Who reviews expense reports and how carefully do they conduct those reviews?
Those are the questions the next story on lawmakers' travel should answer. Because those are the answers taxpayers need in order to evaluate the system.
-- Tom Dennis for the Herald