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Miles and spending still riding high even as House road trips decrease

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Travel-related expenses by the Arizona House decreased sharply in 2016, after the Arizona Capitol Times exposed then-House Speaker David Gowan and some of his close allies for leading an unprecedented increase in the chamber’s travel budget the previous year.

But the House’s total travel spending for 2016, Gowan’s final year as speaker, was still far above average.

The chamber spent more than $71,000 on travel in 2016, according to documents provided to members of the House Administration Committee.

That’s not counting costs such as lawmakers’ mileage to and from their districts, or the thousands of dollars the state paid for travel, then was reimbursed by a private organization providing lawmakers with “scholarships” to conferences around the United States.

The 2016 total travel spending was down sharply from a high of $109,000 the previous year. But it’s still more than the chamber spent in the three years before Gowan took over as speaker combined, according to the documents.

The Senate, which has half the number of lawmakers, spent just $2,000 on travel in 2016, all of which was for staff, not lawmakers.

Taxpayers last year covered lawmakers’ costs to attend conferences in Washington DC, Las Vegas, Chicago, Denver, Philadelphia and even Beijing, China. They sent two lawmakers and two legislative staffers to watch a space shuttle launch in Cape Canaveral, Fla. They even covered the cost of canceling a lawmaker’s family vacation so he could be at the Legislature for a three-day special session.

The breakdown of 2016 travel expenses shows that the single biggest recipient of public money for travel expenses was Brett Mecum, the former deputy chief of staff under Gowan. Mecum spent $8,088 of the public’s money on six trips last year.

Gowan is the next largest recipient of public dollars for travel, with $6,343 spent on eight trips in 2016.

But there’s good reason to take all the numbers provided by the House with a grain of salt.

House chief financial officer Travis Swallow said that under Gowan’s administration, where he was CFO and fiscal and budget policy adviser, travel records were a mess.

“The last two years, ‘15 and ‘16, the travel report wasn’t kept up accurately consistently,” he said,

Swallow said the responsibility fell to former House accountant Kim McFarland. McFarland quit after the Attorney General’s Office began investigating the chamber’s use of public dollars for travel. That investigation continues.

The House Administration Committee was set up by the current speaker, J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, to address concerns about how a lack of transparency led to unrestrained and questionable spending under Gowan. The committee’s task is to make recommendations on a host of issues about the operation of the chamber, including revisiting the chamber’s travel policy.

At a meeting on March 9, committee members reviewed the 2016 travel expenses, and one thing stood out to several Democratic lawmakers.

“It does very much seem party specific and even people specific,” said Rep. Charlene Fernandez, D-Yuma. It just seems like a handful of people were getting all the travel bucks.”

Fernandez noted that no Democratic lawmaker received travel reimbursements for the last two years. In 2016, $21,000 of the travel expenses were attributed to lawmakers directly, while the rest was attributed to staff. But the entirety of that $21,000 went to 12 GOP lawmakers, out of the 60-member chamber.

Fernandez noted that she has to eat her travel costs when she attends constituent events across her massive legislative district, which spans the southwestern corner of the state from Yuma to outside Tucson and up to Maricopa County. And that’s not to mention any out-of-state conferences she attends as part of her duties as a lawmaker.

“I wanna make sure in the future that travel reimbursements isn’t some sort of secret society,” she said.

Story continues after chart.

Rep. T.J. Shope, R-Coolidge, said while the past is a guide and a reference, he didn’t want to dwell on it.

“Look, I could sit here and try to make up some sort of excuse for what happened. But the fact of the matter is I was in a corner office somewhere not knowing what the heck was going on,” he said.

Instead, he said the committee’s goal is to figure out how to draft a new House travel policy that treats everyone fairly, and allows lawmakers and staff to receive reasonable reimbursements for legislative business.

Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, who received almost $2,600 in travel expenses, not including the more than $4,000 the state paid for her to attend conferences that later reimbursed the state, said she didn’t want lawmakers to think of the travel fund as meaning they have an entitlement to take a trip.

“I don’t want this to be viewed as vacation times for lawmakers to be reimbursed or have pleasure trips somewhere. I was designated to represent Arizona for the Assembly of State Legislatures,” she said.

But Fernandez said she had also been called upon to represent Arizona Legislature at a conference. But she couldn’t always afford it.

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