When Governors Travel, Who Pays?
With so many governors running for president, new attention is being given to how out-of-state political trips are funded.
Gov. Bobby Jindal has been traveling a lot lately. That’s not surprising, considering that he’s running for president. But legislators in Louisiana grew upset when they learned providing security for his trips had cost the state police more than $2 million over the past budget cycle. So they inserted a provision in this year’s budget blocking the agency from paying for protection for out-of-state political trips. “That was an effort by some legislators to say, ‘The state should not be paying for your presidential campaign,’” says GOP state Rep. Chris Broadwater.
The question of who should pay for what the governor does comes up all the time. In that job, you don’t have to run for president to face questions about expensive trips paid for by economic development agencies or other parties. Governors run relatively small operations overseeing the whole of state governments. Many stretch their office budgets by having agencies pick up the tab for all kinds of things, routinely “borrowing” staffers from state agencies, offloading some share of their costs. This spring, for example, the auditor’s office in Missouri found that over a three-year period, 14 agencies had spent about $948,000 for all or part of the salaries and travel costs for six employees in Gov. Jay Nixon’s office and the governor’s mansion. Several agencies kicked in an additional $732,000 for other expenses. “As a result, the governor’s office has significantly under reported the true costs of operating the office,” the audit found.
“It happens a fair amount,” says Ray Scheppach, a former executive director of the National Governors Association (NGA). “One state would pay NGA dues with 12 checks from 12 different agencies.”
When the transportation department pays for the guy sitting in the governor’s office shaping infrastructure policy, that may constitute a legitimate expense, but it’s still a problem, suggests Steven Procopio, policy director for the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana, a watchdog group. Budgets should clearly reflect the state’s priorities. “It doesn’t make a difference to the bottom line, but it does make a difference in terms of transparency,” he says. “You want a budget that reflects the priorities of the state.”
No one wants budgets to be a shell game. A million dollars appropriated for education shouldn’t go to prisons. But there will always be overlap between state agency functions and virtually everything a governor does. It may make perfect sense for a governor to share costs or pass the bill on to agencies. Nevertheless, it’s clearly worth keeping an eye on. Even if there’s no corruption or abuse, a governor’s office might decide to work around dedicated fund restrictions, for instance, by billing an agency for perfectly defensible costs, which would have the effect of freeing up general fund money to be spent in other ways.
There’s nothing the public hates more than the impression politicians are feathering their own nests. That’s why there’s always media attention when a governor gets in the habit of expensive trips, no matter who pays for them.
Other than weathering a little criticism, however, it’s not clear that a governor intent on spending other people’s money can be easily stopped. What the Missouri audit showed as much as anything is that Nixon has been willing to ignore restrictions prohibiting most agencies from paying for his office costs. And Jindal wasted no time using his line-item veto authority to delete the provision that would have blocked the state police from accompanying him on his political trips.