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House establishes new travel policy in wake of Capitol Times report

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The Arizona House of Representatives created a new travel policy after an Arizona Capitol Times story revealed that a handful of House Republican leaders and top staffers drove more than 36,000 miles in state vehicles in 2015, sometimes for political or personal purposes.

The new House travel policy, which was distributed to all House lawmakers and staff in mid-January, details a host of requirements for lawmakers seeking reimbursements for their travel on “official state business.”

In an email announcing the changes, House Speaker David Gowan said it’s his “sincere hope that this memorializes appropriate, reasonable, accurate and efficient travel practices of the House.”

The new policy was created on Jan. 19, 11 days after the Capitol Times published a report showing Gowan had used state cars and a state-employed driver to attend political events in Arizona’s 1st Congressional District, where Gowan is a candidate.

Under the new policy, lawmakers and their staff can only be reimbursed for “official business” which is defined as “activities relating to the duties or responsibilities of the (lawmaker’s) office or staffer’s position.”

The new policy also encourages lawmakers to use state fleet vehicles if it is more cost-effective than standard mileage reimbursement for long-distance trips. And it now requires that travelers specify if they will use a privately owned vehicle and receive mileage reimbursement, or whether they plan to use a fleet vehicle and not seek mileage reimbursement.

When lawmakers and members of the House staff combine travel for official state business and non-official reasons, “reimbursement is strictly limited to those expenses incurred in furtherance of official House business,” the policy states. Lawmakers would be on the hook for a campaign-related lunch in Washington, D.C., for example, but not the airplane ticket to get there, if they were also doing official business in the city.

Additionally, the House issued a new travel request form, with an additional question: Are travelers also being reimbursed from any other source for the travel?

And the policy states that Department of Administration regulations and policies, which govern how much state employees can spend on expenses such as travel-related meals, parking and hotels in a given geographic market, are only advisory and do not need to be followed.

One slide in a presentation prepared for training given to all House employees on the new policy declares that the “overarching duty is not to misspend the public’s money, but elected officials and public employees shouldn’t be on the hook for legitimate travel duties.”

Mandatory training

During the first week of February, House staffers had to attend mandatory training sessions explaining the new policies. The new policy dictates that the House staff will not be reimbursed for any official business travel until they have completed the training.

Lawmakers, on the other hand, are not required to attend any training, nor are they banned from receiving reimbursements until a training session is completed.

The fact that all House staffers had to attend the training galled House Democratic Leader Eric Meyer, who noted that the travel spending problems lie not with Democratic lawmakers or staff, but with a handful of top Republican leaders and their staff.

Meyer, D-Paradise Valley, said the problems go beyond state fleet vehicle use.

“Frankly, there’s more than cars that have been used for travel. There has been air travel and going to conferences, too,” he said.

Meyer said it’s good that the House now has a clear travel policy, but he still has doubts about whether it will be followed and if anyone will be held accountable for past abuses.

“The question is what is going to be done around what’s already happened (with publicly funded travel for lawmakers and staff), because there’s possible violations of use of state property for campaigning and for personal use,” he said.

Meyer said he asked House Chief of Staff Tami Stowe for details on the chamber’s budget almost a year ago after he received a new television set in his office that he neither asked for nor needed. But the House refused to show Meyer where the chamber’s $13 million annual appropriation has been spent.

“They basically told us that’s not going to happen… It just shows how much power (House GOP leadership has) around here,” he said.

Requests remain unmet

Similarly, the House has not provided documentation on its travel expenditures in response to a public records request from the Arizona Capitol Times.

A request filed Jan. 19 seeks information on the chamber’s travel spending, including a summary of the trips taken, who took them and what was spent on transportation, lodging and meals. The chamber initially said it would have summary data complete in early February, but now says it has no estimate for when the records will be turned over.

The Senate fulfilled an identical request within three days.

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