Local Politics

Lawmakers on budgetary leash when traveling

Posted August 26, 2008 5:37 p.m. EDT
Updated August 26, 2008 10:31 p.m. EDT

— North Carolina lawmakers traveling out of state must learn to eat and sleep on the cheap to meet state guidelines.

Lawmakers get reimbursed $126 a day for hotel and meals for out-of-state travel.

"(The limit is) set by general statute, and that general statute was set in 1993. So, it hasn't gone up," said Wesley Taylor, financial services manager for the General Assembly.

About 40 representatives and senators, along with 30 legislative staffers, traveled to New Orleans in July for a national legislative conference.

Close to 20 lawmakers have submitted expense reports so far, and they average about $1,000 each for the five-day conference. The state paid for flight, ground transportation, lodging and meals.

State Rep. Deborah Ross, D-Wake, said her experience at the National Conference of State Legislatures in New Orleans was invaluable. She said she learned about public transit, ethics, law, and public policy.

"I'm a much more informed lawmaker, and I learned a lot from my colleagues around the country," Ross said.

To put the per-diem expense limit in perspective, the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau said the average cost of a conference hotel room alone was $153 a night.

According to AAA, two people traveling together should expect to spend $244 a day. A double-occupancy room averages $164 a night, and meals are about $40 a person, the organization said.

Ross said she scrimped on the trip by sharing a hotel room with state Rep. Margaret Dickson, D-Cumberland, and she also spent some of her own money – as did many of her colleagues.

By law, legislators can use campaign money for expenses connected to a conference. Some lawmakers are expected to pay for the entire trip using their own money.

"For the amount of money the state spent, I really think I got a huge value," Ross said.

The legislative travel guidelines – lawmakers also are reimbursed 29 cents per mile for using their cars to travel – contrast sharply with the expenses incurred by Gov. Mike Easley and his wife, Mary Easley, in recent overseas trips.

The Easleys spent more than $100,000 on an April trip to Italy sponsored by the state Department of Commerce, including $51,640 for a chauffeured Mercedes. Mary Easley also took a pair of overseas trips in the past two years to visit museums in Europe at a total cost of $109,000.

Renee Hoffmann, a spokeswoman in the governor's office, said hotels and meals on official Department of Commerce trips overseas are reimbursed fully.